One of the easiest ways to build a political insurgency in Israel is to campaign on ending the exemption. It has survived only because ruling parties have needed the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which hold about a tenth of the seats in parliament,
So at first look, the court decision is a leap forward for equality.
At second look, the ruling isn’t going to bring a quick rise in Israeli conscription. The court gave parliament a year to legislate incremental change. And the draft issue is only the surface manifestation of deeper problems that politicians prefer to avoid. Fighting over conscription is a convenient kind of courage.
In broad strokes, there are two groups of Orthodox Jews in Israel. One seeks to integrate into the wider society. The other, known as ultra-Orthodox or haredi, seeks to maintain a separate, closed community.
Around the time Israel was established 70 years ago, ultra-Orthodox leaders developed new strategies for keeping young people in the fold. They established their own school system — partly funded by the state — devoted to religious study, with little general education. Foreign languages, science and history were all dangerous; they exposed children to secular ideas.
They also created a norm that young men would continue to study full-time, in cloistered religious seminaries, well into adulthood. A small number got draft exemptions as long as they kept studying. After Menachem Begin’s Likud Party came to power 40 years ago in coalition with the ultra-Orthodox, the number of such exemptions soared. Serving in the army means submersion in a secular institution. Haredi leaders fear what that could do.
Israel began as a socialist country, and one threatened by neighbors with much larger armies. Universal service was a military necessity. It was also the ultimate expression of equality. The Israeli mainstream still sees it that way. Hence the anger that ultra-Orthodox men study while others give up years of their lives — or actually lose their lives.
Inconveniently, though, the military doesn’t need those ultra-Orthodox men. In fact, in pure personnel terms, it hasn’t needed full conscription since the early 1990s. Peace with Egypt removed the largest military threat. The country’s population today is double what it was in the mid-1980s. A push for gender equality has put more women in roles men once filled. And a more technological military is less dependent on numbers.
Politicians have conscientiously evaded dealing with this problem. Selective service is unthinkable politically. An alternative — civilian national service — has developed haphazardly, administered by nonprofit organizations, with no guiding policy and too little government investment.
Ironically, one reason that equality of service still resonates with the public is that in other ways Israel has become ever less egalitarian. Cut-throat capitalism has replaced socialism. The gap between rich and poor has become nearly as extreme as in the United States.
Besides the shift in economic policy, though, Israel has a homegrown problem contributing to poverty. Only a little more than half of adult ultra-Orthodox men are in the workforce. Combine this with the high haredi birthrate and you get a growing impoverished community, dependent on government help.
The most visible reason that ultra-Orthodox men don’t work is that they continue studying to avoid military service. Getting more to serve, therefore, would also free more to make a living.
But the bigger quandary is that ultra-Orthodox education does nothing to prepare anyone to work in a knowledge-based economy. In another effort to harness the military to solve social problems, army programs tailored to the ultra-Orthodox include technical training or remedial education. That’s a worthy effort, but won’t make up for years of wasted schooling.
The needed solution is requiring ultra-Orthodox schools to provide a full general education. Political efforts in that direction have consistently failed. The resistance of the ultra-Orthodox parties to an educational revolution is as fierce, or fiercer, than their fight against the draft.
The battle over drafting the ultra-Orthodox obscures the larger problem of how to maintain universal service. It diverts attention from the loss of egalitarianism in civilian society, and from the educational disaster of the ultra-Orthodox schools.
But the fact that some serve, and sometimes die, understandably has much more emotional power. Unless there’s an unexpected outbreak of real political courage, Israeli politicians will energetically wrestle over the consequences of the Supreme Court ruling and avoid the other issues.