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Equalizing the burden could make Israel into czarist Russia

The Bill to Equalize the Burden will further institutionalize the relationship of the state of Israel to the Haredi community as a bloc, rather than as individual citizens, both through its general framing, and through the extraordinary provision of a quota of draftees which must be filled by the ultra-Orthodox community. Not filling the quota triggers imposition of the draft on all Haredi men within the designated age category.

While it is possible that the quota will be met naturally if Haredi enlistment continues to trend upward – framers of the bill are counting on this – it is also possible that the quota will not be filled by volunteers. Haredi leaders would then formally be granted control over the lives of their communities' members in a manner accorded to no other civilian leaders in Israel; the authority to determine who has to serve in the Israel Defense Forces and who does not. It is questionable whether granting such power to unelected leaders has any place in a liberal democracy.

To carry this thinking to its extreme, the bill casts the State of Israel in the position of the 19th century Russia, demanding of Jewish leaders that a quota of Jewish children be sacrificed to military service in order to absolve the rest of the community from fulfilling this duty. This would signal the victory not of Zionism, but of Diaspora-ism.

We are not likely to see the revival of khappers – Jewish thugs employed to kidnap children to meet the Czar's demands 150 years ago – nor will parents in B'nei Brak feel driven to maim their own children to make them undesirable to the military, as Jews did back then. But does anyone imagine that the sons of ultra-Orthodox leaders, those with privileged bloodlines or proximity to power, will be sent to serve in the Israel Defense Forces? The jockeying to distance one’s yeshiva (or one's children) from draft eligibility has already begun.

One could argue that ultra-Orthodox Jews see themselves as part of a bloc, and are already treated by the state as a distinct collective, as are Druze, Bedouin and other Palestinian citizens of Israel in certain realms of life, including military service.
But is this situation desirable, or sustainable? Should some parts of the nation's population be treated by the state as belonging to defined collectives, accorded specialized benefits and constraints, while the rest of the population is treated by the state as individuals, subject to a different set of obligations and rewards?

Many ultra-Orthodox, of course, willingly grant control over areas of their personal lives to their religious leaders, including their stances on political decisions. But it is one thing to voluntarily give over your agency to a religious leader you have chosen to follow, even if you were born into that allegiance, and quite another for the state to grant that leader power over individual citizens through the force of law.

This dilemma is part of a bigger question; how does a liberal democracy relate to population sub-groups which are neither democratic nor liberal? Isn't it the state's responsibility to protect the rights and equality of all of its individual citizens, regardless of how they or their leaders perceive their power relations, to treat all of its citizens equally, as individuals, whether those citizens embrace the principles of liberal democracy or not? And should equality be our only measure?

Israel's ultra-Orthodox communities are more heterogeneous than outsiders often assume, and a few thousand ultra-Orthodox young men each year buck their leaders' fierce anti-draft rhetoric, like that heard at Sunday's mass rally, by voluntarily enlisting in the IDF. The latest ultra-orthodox "spin" – the claim that Israel is about to become the only country on earth that will turn studying Torah into a crime, and Torah students into criminals – is misleading and easy to refute; the crime will be draft evasion, not Torah study. But the disparagement and vilification of military service is clear.

Categorizing any group of people as a bloc risks driving its members to adopt the accepted characteristics assigned to their particular pigeonhole. This bill might loosen the binds on thousands of Haredim men itching to get a job, while allowing ultra-Orthodox leaders to save face because the bill is being passed against their will. But it could also increase the stigma attached to army service, and interfere with organic processes of change taking place internally within ultra-Orthodox communities.

This week’s Haaretz-Dialog poll suggests only a minority of the Israeli public has been fooled into believing that the new bill will deliver the equality promised by its title. Ayelet Shaked, to her credit, did not echo her party’s bogus claims of equality and Zionist resurgence, suggesting instead that this was only a first step to integrating an unsustainably large population currently outside the workforce into our labor market.

Military service is no longer a burden shared equally in Israel even outside the Haredi community. But to acknowledge this does not mean that we should further institutionalize our treatment of part of Israel's population as a bloc, grant its leaders undemocratic powers, or ignore the potential of a compromise intended to alleviate certain kinds of corruption – draft-dodging, falsifying study and work records – to lead to new forms of abuse.

Don Futterman
Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation, working to strengthen civil society and promote peace in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV-1’s The Promised Podcast.