Tens of thousands of people marched alongside reserve soldiers Saturday evening to demand legislation mandating universal conscription.
The rally, organized by reservists insisting that all sectors of society share equally in the burden of defending the state, marched to the Tel Aviv Art Museum. Protesters carried banners reading: “We are no longer suckers,” “Conscription for all,” and “What’s not clear? 18 = enlistment.”
Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin spoke at the “Suckers” movement demonstration, and criticized the handling by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the enlistment issue.
“We are nearing a situation where a majority of the public doesn’t enlist. There are other city squares across the country where people don’t believe they have to share in the burden because others are doing it for them. They are very wrong,” said Diskin.
“The time has come to end state payment to those who don’t take part in the national burden, since we know that it just encourages draft dodging,” said Diskin. “Equal conscription is a concern that is shared by right and left and is part of the ethos on which the state was founded. It need to be done wisely in consultation with all parts of society, but it needs to be done resolutely, because there will always be those who oppose it.”
Diskin said that in order for universal conscription to be a reality, Israel needed leaders who take responsibility, and he urged the public to demand actions from their elected leaders.
“We have a historic opportunity to correct a longstanding wrong. Let’s grasp it,” urged Diskin.
Itay Ben-Hurin, one of the leaders of the “Suckers” movement, called on the religious public to adopt the call for national service — either in the IDF or via alternative civic service. “If the national religious community and the settlers can combine their intense faith with service to the state, so can you,” said Ben-Hurin. “We are willing to compromise. We don’t like some of the recommendations drafted by the politicians, but will accept them if you join us willingly.”
Student Union chairman Itzik Shmuli called on Netanyahu to show leadership, challenging him to decide whether he was “a small politician or a true leader.”
Shmuli tied the equal draft rally to last year’s mass social justice protests, arguing that sharing an equal burden played a major part in creating a just society.
Former Prime Minister’s Office spokesman Yoaz Hendel spoke to Netanyahu from the stage, saying: “It has been a long time since we last spoke. These people came here to raise their voices and remind you of the right direction. I know you can see this. Do something.”
Vice Prime Minister and Kadima party Chairman Shaul Mofaz also attended the rally but was booed and asked to go home by activists, according to Ynet. He told reporters that Kadima would do its utmost to pass legislation based on the Plesner committee’s recommendations.
Earlier this week, Mofaz threatened that Kadima would leave the coalition if it does not support legislation based on the Plesner panel’s recommendations for universal service, which include drafting ultra-Orthodox men at the age of 22, allowing 1,500 annual exemptions for outstanding Torah scholars, and levying personal sanctions on those who refuse either to enlist in the military or perform some sort of national service.
Several Kadima MKs, including Yohanan Plesner himself, dissatisfied with the current state of negotiations, attended Saturday’s demonstration to demand that the government adopt the recommendations of the committee.
Likud MK Carmel Shama Hacohen, who also attended the rally, said that Netanyahu would not miss the opportunity to bring about historic change and ensure the future of the state. He noted that many of those present at the rally were Likud supporters who had faith in the prime minister.
Among the noteworthy participants in the march were former army chief Gabi Ashkenazi, former deputy chief of staff Moshe Kaplinsky, former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, former defense minister Amir Peretz and aspiring politician Yair Lapid.
United Torah Judaism (UTJ) chairman Rabbi Yisrael Eichler said that the leaders of the demonstration made it clear that the aim of the protest was to incite hatred against the ultra-Orthodox public. He said that the protesters don’t care about security and are only out to “re-educate” haredi children through the military melting pot.
“Whoever wants an equal share of the burden should call to end mandatory conscription,” said Eichler.
MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) said the rally was a test for Netanyahu and the Likud. “The prime minister must decide whether or not to abandon his historic partners and his social obligations to us because of some protest attended by 5,000 people,” said Gafni.
Social justice protesters held a parallel demonstration on Saturday calling for financial reform. The 400 protesters blocked a main artery into Tel Aviv.
Protesters told reporters that participating in the social justice protest did not mean they were opposed to a universal draft, but rather that they believed that equality had to be achieved in all areas, not only national service.