Showing posts with label Tal Law. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tal Law. Show all posts

Friday, June 29, 2012

Israel to Draft Ultra-Religious and Arab Israelis

The debate over universal, mandatory military conscription in Israel is heating up.  It is a very important debate, which may change the character of the country quite significantly.

Israel has in place universal military conscription for its citizens, men and women, at the age of 18.  Until now, there have been a number of categories of exemptions.  Military service in Israel is of great importance.  Aside from the existential threats that Israel faces on a continual basis, the military plays an important rule in developing networking, leadership skills and employment opportunities for many of Israel's young adults, across class lines.  This is discussed at length in Start Up Nation, which I reviewed recently.  Those who do not serve in the military or some other form of national service likely face reduced employment prospects and opportunities in Israel.  Hence, the development of greater equality in Israeli society, across various lines, is hindered by the large scale exemptions, which have existed until now.

One category has been the ultra-religious ("Haredi") community.  At Israel's inception, Israel's founding government agreed to provide an exemption from military service for a limited number of ultra-religious Yeshiva (a Jewish seminary) students, who would devote all of their time to the study of Torah. There was some basis in Jewish law for the institution of this type of arrangement on a limited scale.

However, over the years, the exemption became broader and broader as the Haredi community grew and came to be viewed as a general exemption from military service for all young Haredim who attend a yeshiva.  Over time, the effects of this exemption have been dramatic and extremely harmful to Israeli society.  The exempt Haredim who choose to study full-time rather than perform national or military service have wound up with significantly limited employment opportunities.  This is not only a result of their exemption from national service but also because of the lack of a general studies curriculum in the schools at which they attend.  This combination of non-integration with Israeli society and the failure to develop employable skills has led to toxic levels of poverty in the Haredi community.  Yet Israeli governments have continued to fund this system due to the nature of Israeli coalition politics and, particularly, the fear of alienating the Ultra-Religious parties. 

Recently, Israel's High Court of Justice struck down the law exempting the Haredim and held that equality in Israel would require a completely different apporach.  A committee was formed, the Plesner Committee, to institute a replacement law and conscript the Ultra-Orthodox.  Yet the religious parties have continued to hold substantial power in Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been very reluctant to upset the Haredim by changing the conscription law to include the Ultra-Orthodox community.  The media has been filled with reports of extreme statements from members of the Haredi community about intended civil disobedience in the event of mandatory conscription.  On-line news channels, such as Ynet News - Op-Ed have printed guest editorials attacking the idea of forcing this change on the Haredi community.

Yet, there is nothing in the Torah, the Talmud or other Jewish sources that would exempt all observant Jews from serving in the military.  To the contrary, Jewish sources, historical and biblical, are filled with stories of military events and of the necessity of defending the people and the nation.  As the Haredi population continues to grow, its members simply must recognize that they are as responsible for national defence as any other Israelis.  They are also responsible for economic self-sustainment and these goals will intertwine. Haredi veterans of the Israeli Defence Forces are almost certainly going to be much more employable than those who are exempt.  This will benefit the Haredim and the rest of Israel.

The other broad category of exemption has been Israeli Arabs.  Israel has historically recognized an exemption for its Arab citizens due to security concerns and other related issues.  But this is also a matter that must be reexamined.

The discussion here is about Arab Israelis, that is Arabs who are citizens of Israel. These Israeli Arabs enjoy the right to vote, access to full health care, education, freedom of speech, religious freedom and all of the other aspects of a free, open, democratic country that is far ahead of its Middle Eastern neighbours by any measure in any of these areas.  There are Arab Members of Knesset (MKs - members of Israel's Parliament), Arab judges  and Arab Israelis in high level positions across the country.

To be sure, many Arab Israelis have certain grievances and concerns, many of which are legitimate.  They would like to see equality of funding for health care, education, housing and other areas.  They would like to see employment prospects improve. They would not want to be forced to fight against their cousins  or family members in Gaza or the West Bank.

These are all legitimate concerns and should be addressed as mandatory universal military or national service conscription is instituted.  But for the same reasons that apply to the Haredi community, Israeli Arabs who are citizens should face the same obligations as other citizens.  Military service will improve relations between young Israelis and young Arabs.  It will improve employment prospects and will lead to greater equality.

This week, it was Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who led the charge to institute full conscription for everyone including Haredim and Arabs. Though he has dragged Prime Minister Netanyahu towards this goal kicking and screaming, it is Lieberman who has taken a principled, equality-oriented approach, regardless of the political intentions that Lieberman may have.

The reaction from the Israeli Arab community has been as shrill and rejectionist as the reaction from the Haredi community.  According to Ynet News, One MK, Jamal Zahaka, called the attempt to force compulsory service on Arab youth a "declaration of war on the Arab sector."  MK Ahmed Tibi urged the government to talk about "equal infrastructure, education, land allocation and employment" rather than military service.  To which Netanyahu responded that this is all "solvable."  There should be little doubt that universal military or national service conscription would lead to greater equality for Israeli Arabs who would come to be viewed as partners in Israeli society (like the Druze community currently) rather than as a potential fifth column.

Since the Kadima party, now lead by Shaul Mofaz, joined the current coaltion government, there has been a sense that some changes can be made to Israeli law in a number of areas.  One of these key changes, is a more equal approach to military and national service for all Israelis.  This is something that Lieberman is pushing very hard and that Mofaz seems bound to support (with his Kadima party).  Once it is addressed properly, the government can begin to address the even trickier issues of religion and the state, the electoral system - and of revised economic priorities.  These kinds of changes will only be possible with a broad governing coaltion in which the constituent members are all willing to stand up to the pressure from minority Haredi and Arab parties and to act for the benefit of all Israelis.  We will soon see if Prime Minister Netanyahu's current government can meet that test.

Postscript (Added July 3, 2012):  Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday announced that he was dissolving the Plesner Committee - and essentially caving in to the pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox.  It is unclear what will happen as a result of the High Court's decision, which mandated a change to the Tal Law.  However, it has become clear that Netanyahu will not readily support, at this time, a universal conscription bill that would include Ultra-Orthodox and Arab recruits.  

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Buses in Tel-Aviv? Ultra-Orthodox to go to the Army? More on Secular-Religious Tensions in Israel

On February 13, 2012, I wrote about some issues of religious-secular tension in Israel. There have been some further developments and I thought I would comment.

Last week, the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council voted 13-7 to ask the Israeli Ministry of Transportation to permit buses to run in Tel-Aviv on Shabbat (Saturday). As I have discussed, buses do not run in most of Israel on Shabbat, which is the national day of rest. There are some exceptions. For example, Haifa, one of Israel's largest cities, does have bus service on Shabbat. At this point, the Ministry of Transportation has indicated that it will refuse the request and will maintain the "Status Quo."

The "Status Quo" in Israel denotes the agreement entered into between religious and non-religious parties at the time of the founding of the State of Israel. The then-future founding Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, wrote a letter in which he set out certain principles that the State of Israel would follow. Though the State would be democratic and would provide for freedom of thought and expression, it would recognize certain religious principles that would form part of the national law of the fledgling state. Included in this "Status Quo" was the idea that Shabbat would be a national day of rest and that all public institutions would have Kosher kitchens.

There was also an agreement that a certain number of highly observant Ultra-Orthdox Jews would be exempt from military service so that they could devote their full time and attention to furthering their religious studies. It was anticipated that this would be a very small number of students and would therefore be tolerable for the State to allow this exception to an otherwise universal system of military conscription.

Recently, this "Status Quo" has come under fire in different ways. Secular Israelis have perceived an increasing level of Ultra-Orthodox religious observance in certain public areas. For example, there has been a proliferation of gender-segregated buses (particularly in Jerusalem), Ultra-Orthdox opposition to women singing in the army (something women have done, without complaint, since the Israeli army began), other issues of the exclusion of women in billboard advertising, public state-sanctioned ceremonies and other fora. This attempt to set increasingly stringent boundaries by certain Ultra-Orthodox groups has led to a series of public protests, many of which have been organized by the "Yisrael Hofshit" ("Be Free Israel") Movement.

Perhaps, partially in response to these perceived attacks on the Status Quo by Ultra-Orthodox and some Orthodox Israelis, secular Israelis have felt emboldened to raise their own concerns about the Status Quo and to take steps to challenge it. One area of such concern has been the issue of public transportation, particularly in the Tel-Aviv area. As members of the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council have suggested, Tel-Aviv does not generally bar people from driving on Shabbat nor does it prevent taxis from running or even public passenger mini-buses. It is only large buses and trains that do not run. Mayor Ron Huldai and those who support him have argued that it is unfair that those who have the money to own a car or pay for a cab are free to do whatever they want on Shabbat whereas those who cannot afford car or cab fare, particularly students, soldiers and seniors, but including many other Tel-Aviv residents as well, are all "grounded" each Shabbat. Those who oppose the Tel-Aviv Municipality's request for Shabbat bus service have argued in favour of the Status Quo which has been in existence now for more than 60 years. They argue that it will further erode the Jewish character of the State and will commercialize Shabbat and negatively impact the quality of life in Israel.

The other "Status Quo" issue that is being publicly debated is the issue of military exemption for Ultra-Religious Israelis. A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the exemption is now unconstitutional and cannot be continued. Israel's High Court held that the law created inequality in Israel. An article in Haaretz on February 23, 2012 noted that there now 62,000 Ultra-Orthodox Israelis taking advantage of the Tal Law to avoid military service. Israel's Supreme Court held by a 6-3 majority that this situation could not continue.

The move to eliminate, wholly or partially, the exemption from military service for Ultra-Orthodox and the movement to institute public transportation in many other areas of Israel are both signs that the long standing Status Quo is being challenged. There are certainly other challenges on the horizon including the challenge to the existing system whereby Jewish weddings, burials, conversions and ritual circumcisions are all within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinical authorities.

All of these challenges are related to the issue of where to draw the line between democracy and freedom and the Jewish character of the State of Israel. These issues are likely to lead to continued considerable debate in the future as religious and secular Israelis seek to find a manageable compromise that will be workable for both sides.