The Israel Defense Forces, the Tal Law and Beyond

A law governing Israel’s discriminatory military draft has expired, raising tensions between secular, religious, and Israeli-Arabs in one of the country’s most significant internal conflicts.  

Those following Israel’s ongoing conflict with its neighbors may have overlooked a widening domestic rift between Israelis, no less serious in its implications for the future of the country.  

In February, the controversial “Tal Law,” which governed a system of discriminatory conscription into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), was ruled unconstitutional by Israel’s Supreme Court before its expiration on August 1.

For the last ten years, and effectively, decades before it, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious students were granted exemptions from military service to make way for their full-time religious study in the yeshivas (Jewish seminary schools).

Ultra-Orthodox leaders have denied charges that their community receives undemocratic, unequal treatment, and argue that their prayers protect Israel on the battlefield and preserve the Jewish nature of the country. 

The Knesset is set to debate new legislation upon its return from summer recess.

Until a new law is passed, the prospect of immediate conscription looms – at least in theory – for around 60,000 yeshiva students, many of whom vow to refuse service. 

Given the complexity of the situation, the IDF is unlikely to use the full force of its legal mandate.

A Lopsided Burden

The IDF was once seen as a powerful tool of assimilation bringing together Israeli citizens across ethnic, religious, and social-class lines, but today, controversy over who serves in it has become one of the country’s major social and political fault lines.

Widespread draft evasion has not led to a shortage of personnel in the IDF, though it has aroused popular anger over social injustice and the country’s growing economic troubles.

Some in the IDF’s top brass indeed acknowledge that accommodating large numbers of ultra-Orthodox soldiers will create problems in a military environment, where ensuring separation of the genders, and providing soldiers with strictly Kosher food and access to religious study are not priorities.
  
Their views coincide with the likes of former lawmaker and ultra-Orthodox leader Meir Porush, who recently remarked that "the Israeli military is not ready, won't be ready and doesn't want to be ready" for such a move.

But many Israelis are outraged that a large and growing segment of the population refuses to shed its blood in a country which has faced near-perpetual war since its birth.

In the decade following the signing of the Tal Law, Israelis lived through a violent six-year uprising which saw buses, cafeterias, and restaurants explode throughout the country, followed by two mini-wars that wrought unprecedented destruction upon the home-front.

Moreover, through welfare handouts, Israeli taxpayers have largely supported the draft-exempt yeshiva students, the majority of whom are not part of the labor force.

As Israel faces surging housing prices, stagnant wages, and relatively high overall poverty rates, the International Monetary Fund released a study in February indicating that Israel cannot achieve long-term economic sustainability without increased labor-force participation by its growing ultra-Orthodox and Israeli-Arab communities.

The issue has finally reached a boiling point.   

“Suckers” No Longer

On July 7, thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv, demanding that ultra-Orthodox and Israeli-Arab citizens share the burden of military and civilian service. They held signs reading “Everybody serves,” and “One people, one draft.”

Several weeks later, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, some donning handcuffs and holding signs reading “save me,” held a counter-protest in Jerusalem against calls for their mandatory conscription into the army.

Grassroots tensions continued at the highest levels.

Caving to pressure from religious parties in his governing coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu disbanded a panel that had convened to draft serious reforms to the current system of conscription.

Among them were plans to increase the number of Israeli-Arabs enlisted in military and national service three-fold, and reduce the number of yeshiva students evading service to a fraction of its current levels.

In the wake of the incident, the government’s largest coalition partner, Kadima, quit the government in protest – all but guaranteeing early general elections before Netanyahu’s term ends in October 2013. The discriminatory draft is now certain to be a campaign issue that will shape the platform of any future government.

The Supreme Court’s ruling that the Tal Law represents discrimination was not similarly applied to the Israeli-Arab community, who make-up 20% of Israel’s population. However, any new law governing the draft is likely to require some level of national (civilian) service for Israeli-Arabs. 

Irreconcilable Differences

Drama that is now taking place over the draft is also symptomatic of a wider divide in Israeli society that neither arose from disagreements over conscription, nor will it disappear when the Tal Law is replaced. 

Many of Israel’s secular, ultra-Orthodox, and Israeli-Arab citizens live in geographic isolation from one another with little love lost between their communities.

There is near total disagreement over the role of religion in the public domain, gender separation, the allocation of resources in Jewish and Arab villages, loyalty to the state, adherence to Zionism, the building of settlements in the occupied territories, and relations with the Palestinians, among many other issues.

Thus, fireworks can be expected when the Knesset returns from summer recess on October 15 and begins debating a replacement for the Tal Law, and they will not be confined to the Knesset’s 120-seat chamber.

When Israelis came out in huge numbers last summer to protest the high cost of housing and demand improvements in public services, protest leaders were careful to avoid entangling the movement in Israel’s most divisive issues.

Raising discussion of such irreconcilable differences would have spoiled the feeling of solidarity between protesters from all walks of life and dealt a deathblow to the social reform agenda.

It now appears that grassroots Israelis are prepared to mobilize over the discriminatory draft and could signal a greater willingness to address some of the more divisive issues fracturing Israeli-society.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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