There are some general lessons about politics in the current maneuverings of Israeli politicians around the issues of drafting ultra-Orthodox and Arabs.
In Hebrew, the terms rhyme -- חרדים וערבים-- Haredim and Aravim.
The issues differ more than they overlap.
Lesson #1 is the distance between politics and policy, or between politics and government, or between politics and a rational assessment of what ought to be done.
We are seeing the shuffling of proposals and threats, which reflect politicians' sense of what their constituents want, or what they see as advancing their chances in the next election.
These proposals are not the same as a professional assessment of options, along with the benefits and costs (economic and otherwise) associated with each option.
Politicians have put on the table a variety of proposals dealing with the general questions of getting young ultra-Orthodox men out of the religious academies where a lot of unexceptional students spend much of their lives learning very little of use, and getting young Arab men into some kind of national service.
The why concerned with ultra-Orthodox men is a self-evident concern of non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis to stop subsidizing a population that produces more children who will demand public support. There is also a sentiment that the ultra-Orthodox population ought to share the burdens of military service.
Sentiments held by Jews about Arabs are more complex. They have something to do with burden sharing, i.e., if young Jews have to donate three years of their lives to the state, Arabs should also donate something. It would be asking too much of them to serve Israel's army dedicated to defense against Arabs. Many Arabs would not want to do that, and the IDF is less than enthusiastic about deciding which Arabs it would trust with weapons and information about the military.
Advocates of getting the ultra-Orthodox out of the academies and into something useful propose several options beyond funneling them all into the military. They are talking about the options of the Mossad and Shin Bet, dealing with intelligence and operations in matters international and domestic, as well as the police, fire brigades, prison service, and service in hospitals and social agencies, perhaps limited to social agencies that serve the ultra-Orthodox community. The prominent option being considered for Arabs is social service within their communities.
The reservations are well known, and feed into the arguments of those who aspire to a rational assessment of what would be appropriate.
The education of ultra-Orthodox men does not prepare them for any of the options being considered. Some ultra-Orthodox youth may be highly intelligent, but they have not learned much if anything about geography, history, science, or social studies, and have not the experience of other young men with physical education.
Almost all of the commentary comes from politicians who express what ought to be done. We hear very little from the units listed in the politicians' proposals about their willingness to undertake the schooling necessary to bring the ultra-Orthodox up to the levels of high school graduates, at which point the various services could begin the detailed training appropriate to what they expect of their personnel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu's 94-member coalition is threatening to unravel over these issues. Jews from non-ultra-Orthodox parties are threatening rebelliion if the committee considering the issue sidesteps the issue of Arab service, and if it does not take strong enough steps to force the ultra-Orthodox into something. Those wanting to be tough would limit the number of annual exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox "geniuses" that would allow them to continue studying; denying welfare payments to men refusing to serve as well as to the families they create, and reducing financial grants to academies whose students refuse to serve.
Ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members are threatening to rebel if there is any pressure against individuals or academies.
One view of the opposition of ultra-Orthodox MKs is that the details are not important. No matter what reformers propose, ultra-Orthodox leaders are adamantly against any separation of young men from their community. It is not one kind of work or another that is their problem, but the threat of mixing ultra-Orthodox with secular temptations. Related to this is ultra-Orthodox opposition to the Internet and television. While "ghetto" is usually employed as a term of forced segregation, there was also an element in European history of voluntary separation of Jews from undesirable Gentiles. It in this this sense ultra-Orthodox rabbis insist on keeping their young men out of the IDF or any other alternative that secular Israelis propose.
Knesset Members affiliated with largely Arab parties are not in the coalition, but are threatening non-compliance and/or civil unrest if the government forces young Arabs to serve the Jewish state. Some say that Arabs should accept the burdens of citizenship, but only if the benefits of citizenship are also available. They cite the poor quality of infrastructure available in Arab communities, along with the low incidence of Arabs in prestigious programs of higher education, and the difficulties Arab graduates face in trying to get good job offers.
Also in the air is the view that this is an appropriate occasion to reconsider the nature of the IDF and the ideal of compulsory service.
Involved in this is the claim that Israel has matured beyond the point where it is appropriate or efficient to draft large numbers of young men and women, invest considerable resources in their training, and use many of them in low-skill activities that might be served with low-cost civilian contractors. The military's need for fighters and technicians can best be met via campaigns of voluntary recruitment with attractive salaries and other benefits. The result would be a professional military, backed up by its graduates serving in a ready reserve, more suitable to the country's needs than what Zionist ideology created years ago.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is twisting and turning in an effort to keep his coalition together. He speaks about requiring both ultra-Orthodox and Arabs to share the burdens of Israeli citizenship, but has been working to moderate the demands coming from his secular partners intent on pulling the ultra-Orthodox from the academies into the military and then into the workforce.
Postponing the Arab issues might work for some of his partners.
Netanyahu has also announced his support for increasing the budget deficit, which may mean payoffs to the programs favored by parties that would--in exchange for budget allocations--take a softer stand about drafting ultra-Orthodox and Arabs. However, the Governor of the Bank of Israel has weighed in with his reputation as a world class economist against the Prime Minister's financial plans. In the Governor's view, this is not the time to increase the deficit, which may grow in any case due to problems coming to Israel from economies in Europe and the United States. He mentioned the stagnation of the 1970s and the high inflation of the 1980s, and said that the United States was less able and less willing to provide financial help than in those years. If Israel wants to avoid the fate of Spain, Portugal, or--God forbid Greece--it should tighten its belt rather than loosen it.
Involved in all the maneuverings are calculations about what the Supreme Court will accept. Its ruling against the status quo on the basis of its inequality began the process of considering the drafting of ultra-Orthodox and Arabs that is unlikely to end without dissatisfied citizens or politicians submitting a petition that will involve the Court once again.
Lesson #2 has to do with changing political culture. It is easier to propose grand changes, such as recruiting ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, or an equally radical notion of turning the IDF into a leaner and more efficient professional military than it is to alter ideological or mythic notions of who should serve.
Societies do change. Evidence ranges from the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the status of Barack Obama, and to whatever is happening in several Arab countries. Israel's high-tech entrepreneurs and workers travel frequently to the Silicon Valley, Seattle, and sites in China, India, and Europe. This is not the Israel of decades past dominated by kibbutz agriculture and low-tech industries. One can still find signs of the country's socialist history, but they have been modified by private enterprise, along with increasing gaps between rich and poor.
What remains is an iconic military, huge in relation to other features of the country, and still justified by real threats. The IDF's own moves toward innovations in intelligence gathering and weapons put it, along with the industries serving it and staffed by IDF graduates, among the country's most dynamic sectors.
The ultra-Orthodox and Arabs are the laggards of the economy.
There is no obvious fit between a high-tech military, the ultra-Orthodox and Israel's Arabs, especially when none of the partners want to work with the others.
Among the professional questions to be answered are the best strategies and the best institutions to improve the laggards' contribution to the economy?
Among the questions apparent in the politicians' maneuverings are what do their constituents' prefer?
The two sets of questions may merge into a useful program, with a minimum of political rebellion by those unhappy with the prospects.
We can hope for the best, as long as we do not expect too much.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at June 30, 2012 09:37 PM