A cold draft blows through Israel



In the broad brush strokes used by the international media to depict the Middle East, a lot of the detail gets lost. And like a giant mosaic, an effect of this is that we tend to see only the same big patterns and be unaware of the individual pieces making up the design.

One of the details often overlooked in coverage of the Israel-Palestine issue is the instances of conflict within Israeli society itself. Jew-on-Jew antagonism is rarely appreciated in our imagining of Israel as a monolithic Zionist entity.

But there are divisions within Israeli society and lately some of them have started to fester.

In the last few days it is the issue of national service that has begun to ooze, with PM Netanyahu declaring his support for new laws that will make it harder for segments of the Israeli population to dodge their compulsory military duties.

National service (3 years for men, 2 for females) is part of the shared experience of Israeli life and for a state that considers itself in a permanent state of war, time spent in the IDF is an important part of national identity and social contract.

But around 10% of Jewish Israeli males eligible for conscription avoid their national service through religious scholarship. This exploits a concession first granted to a small number of Haredi Jews back in 1948. The deal was that men who were enrolled full-time in religious colleges would be allowed to complete their studies before being conscripted.

It made sense at the time, heading off a potential rift amongst the residents of the new state and really only concerned a few hundred men.

However, since that time, this loophole has grown in scale and duration. It’s now tens of thousands of young men who defer their service and the reality is that the period of religious scholarship is continually extended until past the age where they can be conscripted anyway.

That’s not to say that no Haredim serve. There are even special formations of the ultra-religious and the fact that a good military record is often the key to a successful leadership career in Israeli public and private enterprise is an incentive.

Females can also get some concessions in duration or frequency of their two-year service period by declaring themselves religiously observant.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are another group that slips through the national service net. They are exempt from conscription, though may volunteer. Naturally, few do. And even when they do join it’s unlikely you’ll see a Palestinian fighter pilot trusted in a holding pattern over Tel Aviv with a full bomb load any time soon.^

These loopholes and a growing incidence of outright draft dodging have led to what Defence Minister Ehud Barak described as the transformation of the IDF from “a people’s army to the army of half of the people”. Barak’s sentiment was that those undertaking their national service obligations must increasingly feel like suckers.

You’d have to agree with that line considering the irony of what you might be called to do as a national service grunt. You could be stuck out in the Occupied Territories defending some sort of trailer park settlement packed with exactly the sort of religious conservatives who refused to serve alongside you. Given that a government commission has just recommended legalising some of the previously unofficial settlements, there could be more of this on the cards. As lightning rods for local, regional and international opposition, the hardcore “Nile to the Euphrates” zealots can be seen as a consumer of IDF resources without stumping up for a reciprocal contribution.

And that really hacks off a large segment of the moderate and secular Jewish population. Which is behind Netanyahu’s populist move to tighten the laws on national service. Feeling stronger since he brought his main political opposition into a coalition, Bibi is flexing his muscles against the religious conservative groups he is no longer so beholden to in the parliament.

For most of us far away, such domestic political issues are of little interest in the grand scale of things, as we keep a bit of an eye on Syria and a back-of-the-mind consciousness of the Israel-Palestine stalemate. But significant shifts in intra-Israeli affairs can be the ripples that become waves in the region, and where the status of the IDF is concerned, doubly so.

On the other side of the equation are the enigmatic Druze, for whom service in the IDF is a badge of honour. Originally kept in segregated units, the martial prowess and dependability of the Druze has seen them increasingly integrated across the IDF. Although we’re playing with vastly different population numbers here, a greater proportion of all Druze males serve the in the Israeli forces than do Jewish men!