Once again we have seen before our eyes why it is an impossible dream to create a peaceful side-by-side existence for Jews and Palestinians on certain sectors of the Land of Israel. And over these past few weeks we have also witnessed a surprising display of senseless injustice in Israel’s attempt to smoothly run a civilized society governed by laws.
Case in point was the long, drawn-out debate over Ulpana. I hope to be able to get a closer look at the community near Bet-El and to speak to its former residents over the next few days here in Israel.
So Jews were living on what the court believed was Arab-owned land. Is this such an unconscionable and dastardly act that Israel could not tolerate for an extra moment? But officials from Prime Minister Netanyahu down said that it was imperative that Israel adhere to the ruling of its top court no matter how unbalanced and even illogical that decision seemed to many. And so it happened that over 30 resident families of Ulpana dejectedly packed their belongings and moved to temporary quarters inside the Bet-El community.
Let’s not overlook that the Peace Now, Yesh Din, and other Israeli leftists, along with the Palestinian Authority, see this as only a temporary solution to what they feel are insurmountable obstacles to building a future Palestine. Those groups envision the evacuation and destruction of entire communities like Bet-El and their 6,000 residents in order to facilitate what they see as just. That does not bode well for the often-stated formula and objective of two states for two people living side by side. As time goes by and evictions from places like Ulpana take place, it looks like the likelihood of peace simultaneously decreases.
Yes, Israeli officials insist that Israel is a democracy that lives according to the law. That is all fine and good, except for the fact that in a society that purports to afford its citizenry legal rights, there seems to be something terribly out of balance here.
Take the Tal Law, which is very much in the news these days in Israel as well as in Jewish communities around the world. Here’s some background on the matter, dealing with whether yeshiva students will continue to be exempt from mandatory military or national service.
Although yeshiva students were not technically exempt from military service, their enlistment was annually postponed until they received an age or parental exemption. This situation, while in practice from the early days of the State of Israel, was viewed by many as undemocratic, unjust, and unequal. Unlike other exemptions from military service given to some groups in Israel (Bedouin, Arabs, and others), it was based on a ministerial order and not specified in the law.
In 1974, only 2.4% of the soldiers enlisting in the army were exempt because they were yeshiva members, under the “Torato Umnuto” arrangement. This number reached 9.2% in 1999. It is anticipated that this percentage will reach 15% in 2012. Meanwhile, in the year 2025 the Orthodox sector in Israel is expected to reach 12.4% of the total population, whereas the children of this sector would reach 22.4%. In 1999 there were 30,414 exempted yeshiva students, and by 2005 the number grew to 41,450.
To be recognized as an exempt yeshiva student one must meet two conditions: dedicate one’s full day to studying Torah in a recognized yeshiva institute, and not be employed in any work in which a salary would be provided.
The Finance Ministry of Israel presented data which indicated an unreasonable rise in the number of exempt young men. According to that data, the number of students grew by 237% in the years 1985–1998, while the total number of young men increased by 354% over the same period.
The bottom line is that today far too many young people are opting for exemptions based on yeshiva affiliations. This has placed an extraordinary economic and security burden on other sectors of Israeli society that do not enjoy such exemptions, and has led to an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court.
The Tal Committee was appointed after the Supreme Court determined that the minister of defense had no authority to determine the extent of the exemptions from army service given to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. The ruling also elaborated on the need for a legislative solution dealing with all aspects of the issue. Committees had been created before to resolve the matter, including the Cohen Committee and the Israeli Committee.
In February of this year, the Supreme Court once again spoke up; they ruled that the Tal Law was unconstitutional. Today the debate rages in Israel as they try to put the military-exemption genie back into the bottle.
With the Supreme Court seen as being in the mood to break new ground and to smash the longstanding status quo, a good part of Israel is up in arms. The right, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu Party, says that if Israel is truly a state where there has to be constitutional evenhandedness for all sectors of society, then if the ultra-Orthodox are compelled to serve, the Israeli-Arabs should be compelled by law to serve the country as well.
Lieberman has been joined by others on the right, while the Arab members of the Knesset who shout and exclaim relentlessly that they are not treated with equality with other citizens of the state are being maneuvered into a position to demonstrate their loyalty to the country. The Arab sector, while not required to serve in the IDF, receives numerous economic benefits from the state, not dissimilar to that of the ultra-Orthodox population.
From the distance it looks like a potentially troubling and earth-shattering change to force yeshiva students to leave their studies and take time to serve their country. Critics who are in favor of this type of change insist that too many students are exploiting the situation and that only those students who truly excel at their studies should continue to enjoy exemptions.
And no, serving one’s country does not mean that you pull a young man out of yeshiva, throw a uniform on him, and place a gun in his hand. If a young person in Israel feels that for some reason he cannot serve in that capacity, there are other support areas in which their service is desperately needed.
On the other end of the spectrum, parties like Shas and other ultra-Orthodox groups are vehemently opposed to any changes to the status quo.
Is Israel a society without double standards, or is there, in this particular area—as there may be in areas of housing, as in Ulpana—one standard for Jews and another for Arabs?
Regardless of where you come down on this question, whether you feel that chareidim should do compulsory national service of some sort or not, is not really the issue at this juncture. The question at this point is whether or not there is true justice and equality for all in Israel—for Arabs and Jews alike. For now the jury is still out.
Written by Larry Gordon – Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.