Tel Aviv — After six decades of exempting ultra-Orthodox from the army, the Israeli government appears resolved to draft them. But the plan, widely popular among secular Israelis, may have unintended negative consequences for the tens of thousands of women serving in the military.
The planned Haredi draft — a product of the recent deal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut with the Kadima party to bring it into his coalition — is widely deemed a fulfillment of basic democratic principles. “Equality of rights and equality of obligations is a fundamental tenet in a democratic society,” wrote Haaretz columnist Moshe Arens, a former government minister.
But some of the strongest advocates of democratic rights in Israel say that drafting Haredim could cause more harm than good. They believe that the demands Haredim will inevitably make, such as to consume only food prepared under special supervision, and their obedience to rabbis on all matters even when at odds with military commands, will disrupt army protocols and military discipline. And they worry most of all that the demands of Haredim when it comes to gender will disadvantage the thousands of women who serve, as they have since the state’s inception. There is intense controversy in Israel today about Haredi attitudes towards gender encroaching on the public sphere, such as on public buses where women — in violation of court rulings — are expected to sit at the back, and on billboards in Jerusalem, where pictures of women are conspicuously absent.
“One of the prices of this is that women will be denied equal opportunities in the army,” said Yedidia Stern, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute.
The concerns of prominent Israeli feminist Anat Hoffman run so deep that she opposes a military draft of Haredim and wants them to perform civilian service only “in their own places, in their own neighborhoods.” Hoffman, executive director of the Reform movement’s lobbying arm, the Israel Religious Action Center, told the Forward, “Maybe the cost of having [Haredim] in the army is not worth it, because half of the army is women and if the army becomes a place where they are excluded and discriminated against, this will be a terrible thing.”
The Israel Defense Forces has closed ranks on the ramifications of a Haredi draft, which means that the Forward’s request for comments on the subject were declined and individual soldiers are not allowed to talk. But Elazar Stern, former head of the division that will be tasked with integrating Haredim, the Manpower Directorate, admitted, despite his enthusiasm for a Haredi draft, that “if they will be spread all over the units it will come with a problem, [as] they don’t want to see girls or work with them.”
Rarely have the conditions looked more conducive for a government to stop exempting Haredim from the military service it demands from all other Jews. On July 31, the law that upholds the exemption for Haredi men will expire. (Haredi women are exempted by a different mechanism, which will stay in place). And the power of Haredi parties in Netanyahu’s government to cause a coalition crisis over the issue has now been defused by the inclusion into the government, on May 8, of the largest opposition party, Kadima.