The Knesset committee charged with formulating a more equitable draft law, working under a pressing deadline that expires on July 31, opened its doors to the public Thursday for the first time as it heard clashing recommendations from leaders in the Arab sector, the kibbutz movement, women’s rights organizations and the sole ultra-Orthodox MK willing to cooperate with it.
Cautiously entitled in Hebrew “the committee for the advancement of inclusion in service and equality in sharing the burden,” the panel was initially established in order to draft an alternative to the Tal Law, which for 10 years governed the terms of service for the ultra-Orthodox and was deemed discriminatory by the Supreme Court in February. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added to the committee’s mandate on May 21, saying that it should not only strive for equality vis-à-vis ultra-Orthodox communities and the state but also consider the matter of Arabs and national service and avoid pitting one segment of the population against another.
Judging by Thursday’s session, this will be an extraordinarily difficult mission to fulfill.
The first speakers of the day were from women’s rights groups. The picture they painted was grim. According to the Women’s Forum for Policy and National Security, there is a direct correlation between the number and influence of religious and ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the army and the degree to which “the service of women in the army is fundamentally harmed.”
The impairment, they say, is across the board: women are barred from certain draft dates, and therefore prevented from taking part in some of the IDF’s top courses, because religious men are drafted on the same day; they are not allowed to work as parachute instructors because this requires touching the male soldiers; they are not allowed to perform their roles as artillery instructors because the close contact between men and women is deemed inappropriate; they are not allowed to meet alone with soldiers even if their rank and position require it; they may not teach combat-related lessons even from the front of a class room; they may not participate in religious services such as reading the Passover Haggadah; there are no women’s sections in any of the army’s synagogues; and the current ultra-Orthodox units, in the air force and the Kfir Brigade, are “sterile zones,” entirely off limits to all women at all times.
Sharon Cherkasky, the director of WIZO’s government liaison branch, told the committee she receives constant and ever more frequent complaints from women in the army. “I recently received a complaint from three soldiers who said they were asked to leave the office in which they were working so that the ultra-Orthodox soldier slated to arrive would not have to look them in the eyes,” she said.
Cherkasky would not give the committee her opinion on the matter of ultra-Orthodox service. She said that the advancement of women was her cause and her focus, adding that all too often commanders with no bias, who are weighing a female and male candidate for a position, “will take the man so that they don’t have to worry about the ensuing mess.”
Committee Chairman MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima), who headed the subcommittee that examined alternatives to the Tal Law, acknowledged that all-male “enclaves” were a fact of ultra-Orthodox integration.
Law professor Yedidia Stern, who heads the religion and state project at the Israel Democracy Institute and is a member of the committee, said that “a critical element” of this solution was that the heterogeneous enclaves would be available only to those in mandatory service; anyone looking to continue to a command position or a career track would have to accept that the army was a homogeneous society.
The representatives of three separate Arab institutions, meanwhile, all said they believed in integration and a more equal distribution of service but acknowledged that bias and anti-state hurdles abounded.
Atef al-Karnawi of Rahat, the chairman of the non-profit organization Social Equality and National Service in the Arab Sector, said “there is the state of Israel and the state of the Arabs.” The latter sector, which is vocally opposed to the notion of compulsory national service, he said, was all too often run “by a mafia.” He told the committee that his wife had been threatened with violence and that many women he knew were either fired or beaten for taking part, or cooperating with those who take part, in civil service.
Saeed abu-Zalam, the secretary of the district court in Nazareth, and Ali Zahalke, a school principal in the Wadi Ara region, said the willingness to serve was on the rise but that civil service had to be better funded and the acute lack of positions for men had to be addressed.
Plesner asked several times if they thought the new law should include a compulsory call to service for Arab citizens. They opined that service should be voluntary and well compensated.
A source close to the committee said afterwards that while the ultra-Orthodox issue needed resolution, the matter of Arab service needed merely to be addressed; put on track and not brought to the finish line, he said.
As for the ultra-Orthodox community itself, it has no representation on the committee.
Ilan Shahar, an expert on ultra-Orthodox affairs who said this was the fifth time he had testified before a committee charged with examining the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the army, informed the panel, which is comprised of mostly Orthodox Jews – all except for Plesner and the reservist Yoav Kish – that “you have no partner in the ultra-Orthodox communities.”
He suggested adopting the Moshe Dayan-era model of a 3 percent exemption rate for the ultra-Orthodox, along with sanctions leveled against institutions and individuals who did not comply. He renounced the notion of arresting those who refuse the draft but told the committee the public should be prepared for “a confrontation similar to the one surrounding the disengagement (from Gaza).”
MK Rabbi Haim Amsellem, a renegade who broke ranks with the Shas party in 2010 and the only one of the 16 ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset willing to so much as appear before the committee, called for a plan that would “take the golden path between the two great Jewish values”: Torah study and mutual responsibility.
He said his plan is based on the notion of an elite core of Torah scholars. Very few will be accepted. Those that make the grade will be tested throughout by a committee of rabbis and lawyers. Those who don’t, will serve in either the police force or the Border Police, both of which, he said, were well suited to ultra-Orthodox community. Institutions of higher Torah learning that are found to be cheating the state will face severe sanctions. Those who complete the four-year course of study will receive certificates and funding similar to discharged soldiers.
“Don’t believe the anguished cries of the all politicians,” Amsellem told the committee. “The community has begun to understand that the devil is not as bad as it seems.”