Much of the public discourse surrounding the prospects for an early election and the premature demise of the present government have focused on what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud and the other political parties in the coalition have to gain or lose. If an election is held in June, will this be good for the various coalition parties? Will opposition parties like Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Meretz under new leadership, gain votes? How will the Zionist Union under the leadership of Avi Gabbay fare?
But little attention has been devoted to substance. The haredi population’s refusal to perform either military service or some form of national service is the core issue that set the coalition crisis in motion.
Whether or not the present government falls apart over the haredi demand for blanket exemption from military or national service exemptions for yeshiva students, the underlying problem is not going anywhere. The next government that is formed will have to do something about a rapidly growing segment of the male population that is obligated by law to perform military service but which refuses to due to religious conviction and ideology.
The High Court of Justice has already ruled that the existing legislation is discriminatory, since it provides exemptions from mandatory service to one segment of society but not to another. The blood of haredi men is, according the legislation, redder than the blood of non-haredi Israelis who must either enlist or face sanctions that include fines and imprisonment.
In a cynical attempt to bypass the court ruling, the haredi parties – United Torah Judaism and Shas – proposed adding a Basic Law that places Torah scholarship in a special, exalted category.
They did this not because they want the State of Israel to advance the cause of Torah scholarship for all walks of society – religious and nonreligious alike – but because doing so would open the way for legislation that gives a special dispensation to yeshiva students. If the value before the law of promoting Torah scholarship is elevated to the level of ensuring equality, which is protected by Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, blanket exemptions for male haredi students could no longer be considered discriminatory by the High Court.
All of this hairsplitting legalism, reminiscent of Talmudic logic, does not change the simple fact that the haredi political leadership insists that members of its population be given preferential treatment. While the young men and women of other sectors of the population must dedicate one, two or three years to mandatory military service or national service, the haredim deserve an exemption, claim politicians from Shas and UTJ.
The majority of Israelis disagree. A recent survey conducted by the Smith Polling Institute for the Hiddush religious pluralism lobbying group showed that 79% of the Jewish public oppose blanket exemptions for yeshiva students, compared to 21% in favor.
After breaking down the results according to the different political parties, the picture is clear: 67% of Likud voters, 80% of Kulanu voters, 78% of Yisrael Beytenu voters and 72% of Bayit Yehudi voters oppose blanket exemptions.
In addition to the legislation’s inherent discrimination, it creates an untenable situation in which tens of thousands of able-bodied young men are blocked from entering the labor market. Exemption from IDF service is conditional upon full-time Torah scholarship that leaves no time for work. Perpetuating this situation means perpetuating the haredi community’s poverty: The haredi educational system will continue to produce men with a strong background in Torah scholarship but who lack the occupational skills to find well-paying jobs. And a poor, economically unproductive haredi population is a burden on society as a whole.
The wholesale exemption from military service of a large and rapidly growing segment of society is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed seriously. Stop-gap measures designed to save the government coalition ignore the fundamental question. Will this government, or the next, listen to the majority and stop the discriminatory IDF draft policy? Or will yet another government come into office that compromises the value of equality for the sake of narrow political interests?