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Israeli Election Rekindles Debate Over Military Service

Jan 30, 2013
Originally published on February 3, 2013 12:51 pm

The rise of a new Israeli political party after last week's elections has set the stage for renewed conflict over the country's military draft.

That new party, Yesh Atid, or "There is a Future," campaigned on a promise to draft thousands of ultra-Orthodox students who are currently exempt from military service.

And with the number of ultra-Orthodox students in Israel on the rise given the community's high birth rates, this longstanding debate has become a critical post-election issue.

Outside Israel, many people think all Israelis, men and women, serve in the military. But the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 10 percent of Israel's population, are not conscripted, and neither are the Arab citizens of Israel, who account for around 20 percent of the population. In both communities, a minority volunteer to serve.

It's a standard scene in Israel on Sunday, the first day of the work week: Young men and women in uniform stand at bus stops, waiting for buses that will take them back to military bases after weekend visits home. But you'll see few ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim.

Elia, a young paratrooper, says that's not right. "Everybody has to serve in the army," he says. "I mean, this is Israel. We live in a very difficult situation, and everybody should give his part and go to the army."

A Long-Standing Issue

Polls show that most Israelis agree. But the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox has been stuck in the courts — and in the legislature — for years. A growing number of Haredim now join up voluntarily or do national service in lieu of enlisting.

Elishama Cohen, another soldier from a religious family, says he is in a special unit for Haredi soldiers. Many of them are there, he says, despite the objections of their families.

"I have [a] friend who the army had to rent an apartment for, in Jerusalem, because his family wouldn't accept it at all," Cohen says. "I had a friend who has to take his uniform off on the bus before he goes home."

Voluntary enlistment won't be enough if Israel's new government follows the platform of Yesh Atid, the new party that captured 19 seats with a campaign focused on this issue. The party won the second most seats in the election, trailing only the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Yesh Atid party says this is a campaign promise it can't compromise on, but many ultra-Orthodox thinkers characterize Yesh Atid's policy another way.

"It's a form of ideological coercion, which should not be tolerated in a democratic world," says Rabbi Shmuel Jacobowitz, dean of the Harav Lord Jacobowitz Torah Institute of Contemporary Issues — a kind of Haredi think tank.

Turning people away who want to study Torah is unthinkable to the ultra-Orthodox, Jacobowitz says. Nurturing a devoted cadre of Torah scholars is in the "anchor of the Jewish people," he says, "and we as a community feel that the survival of the Jewish people depends on this no less — and in many senses more — than on the physical protection of the state of Israel."

For Netanyahu, A Difficult Balancing Act

Many of the customers in Jerusalem's Rav Shefa Mall are Haredim. The men wear long dark coats and broad-brimmed hats and sport payot, locks of hair grown from the corners of the forehead. Few want to talk with outsiders, but one shopper, Andre Atwood, says he'd like to see more Haredi young people in the army. But it can't be forced, he says — it has to be voluntary.

Military service isn't something the Haredi community is used to, Atwood says. Those who want to study and learn the Torah should, but those who don't should be able to study one hour each day while also contributing to society through service, he adds.

Yesh Atid envisions a phase-in period of perhaps five years, but eventually, many of the ultra-Orthodox would face possible conscription. And figuring out who has to serve could be painful. Uri Regev, head of the group Hiddush for Religious Freedom and Equality, says there's only one way to avoid favoritism: A small cadre of Torah students should be chosen based strictly on academic ability.

"The selection should be done by an objective board, and not by the yeshiva heads or the ultra-Orthodox leadership," Regev says.

Untangling this knot will be central to ongoing discussions about forming a new Israeli government. Two religious parties that have been part of Netanyahu's ruling coalition hold nearly as many seats as Yesh Atid, the party backing universal service.

Netanyahu is now trying to keep both sides inside the next government, to help his own party recover from serious electoral losses.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Israel, the rise of a new political party after last week's elections has set the stage for renewed conflict over the country's military draft. That new party, Yesh Atid or There is a Future, campaigned on a promise to draft thousands of ultra-Orthodox students into the army. They're currently exempt.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, that pledge has turned this longstanding debate into a critical post-election issue.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: It's a standard scene most Sundays in Israel: At bus stops around the country, young men and women in uniform wait for buses that will take them back to military bases after visits home. But you will see few Orthodox Jews or Haredim as they're known. A young paratrooper named Elia says it's not right.

ELIA: Everybody has to serve in the army. This is Israel. We live in a very difficult situation, and everybody should give his part and go to the army.

ABRAMSON: Polls show most Israelis agree. But the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox has been stuck in the courts and in the legislature for years. A growing number of Haredim now join up voluntarily or do national service. Another soldier from a religious family says he's in a special unit for Haredi soliders. Speaking through a translator, Elishama Cohen says his friends joined up despite the objections of their families.

ELISHAMA COHEN: (Through translator) I have friends who the army actually had to rent an apartment for in Jerusalem because his family wouldn't accept it at all. I have a friend who comes to Jerusalem and he takes his uniform off from the bus before he goes home.

ABRAMSON: Voluntary enlistment won't be enough if Israel's new government follows the platform of Yesh Atid, a new party which captured 19 seats with a campaign focused on conscription for all. The party says this is a campaign promise they can't compromise on. But many Orthodox see this proposal as a direct threat.

Rabbi Shmuel Jacobowitz is dean of the Harav Lord Jacobowitz Torah Institute of Contemporary Issues, kind of a Haredi think tank. He says that nurturing a devoted cadre of Torah scholars is the anchor of the Jewish people.

RABBI SHMUEL JACOBOWITZ: We, as a community, feel that the survival of the Jewish people depends on this no less - in many senses more - than on the physical protection of the state of Israel.

ABRAMSON: In the Rav Shefa Mall, many of the customers are Haredim. The men wear long dark coats, broad-brimmed hats and sport payot, kind of like pigtails grown from the corners of the forehead. Few want to talk with outsiders. But one who would, Andre Atwood, says he would like to see more Haredi young people in the army. But, he says, it can't be forced. It has to be voluntary.

ANDRE ATWOOD: Not take the total Haredi community and put them into a difficult situation. It's not something they're used to, and it's not something which - I believe if those want to study and to learn Torah, they can do it. If those don't want to do it, they have time to study one hour a day and then work and contribute to society, which I think is good.

ABRAMSON: Yesh Atid, the new political party pushing this issue, envisions a phase-in period of perhaps five years. But eventually, many of the Orthodox would face possible conscription. Figuring out who has to serve could be painful. Uri Regev, head of a group called Hiddush for Religious Freedom and Equality, says there's only one way to avoid favoritism: A small group of Torah scholars should be chosen strictly based on academic ability.

URI REGEV: The selection should be done by an objective board and not by the Yeshiva heads or the political ultra-Orthodox leadership.

ABRAMSON: Untangling this knot will be central to ongoing discussions about forming a new government. Two religious parties that have been part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition hold nearly as many seats as Yesh Atid, the new party that is backing universal service. Netanyahu is trying to keep both sides inside the next government to help his own party recover from serious losses in the election. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Jerusalem.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.