No one really wants to solve ultra-Orthodox enlistment, says Israeli academic
Interview'There is a general interest in keeping this argument going'

No one really wants to solve ultra-Orthodox enlistment, says Israeli academic

As the issue of Haredi conscription threatens to derail a government, Open University’s Prof. Yagil Levy says neither religious nor secular parties truly desire a compromise

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against the military draft. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against the military draft. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has long made the issue of ultra-Orthodox military enlistment central to his party’s platform. Now, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dependent on both Liberman’s secular Yisrael Beytenu party and ultra-Orthodox parties to form a coalition, it seems the issue is coming to a head.

Facing a Wednesday night deadline to cobble together a 61-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset, Netanyahu has just hours to find a solution to an impasse revolving around a controversy that goes back to the formation of the state. If the prime minister isn’t successful, the country faces the prospect of returning to the polls just a few months after the last elections — an endeavor which could cost billions of shekels.

Liberman says he is interested in joining what would a staunch right-wing Netanyahu government, but is unwilling to compromise on the details of legislation that passed a first reading last July and would mandate financial penalties for yeshivas that didn’t meet the quotas for enlistment of their students. The ultra-Orthodox parties have voiced their full-throated opposition to this bill as it stands and insist its terms be softened.

The issue seems insurmountable. But one Israeli academic believes that both Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox are all bluster.

According to Prof. Yagil Levy, who researches the relationship between Israel’s society and military at the Open University, it is not at all certain whether Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox camp would really prefer to solve this problem once and for all.

“The biggest disaster that could befall Avigdor Liberman would be if the ultra-Orthodox were to say, ‘Okay, we give in. Let everybody enlist in the army; it doesn’t matter to us anymore.’ That would be the biggest catastrophe for him… and on the other hand, they can’t give in completely,” Levy says in an interview with Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.

Prof. Yagil Levy. (CC-SA/Gidon Markovitz)

“In the end, there is a general interest in keeping this argument going. In order to maintain it, we need to keep it burning all the time, and that’s what Liberman is doing,” Levy says. “I believe that he thinks the ultra-Orthodox should enlist, but I also believe that he has an interest in making sure that this gap between the demand for full enlistment and partial enlistment remains as a permanent dispute that serves his electoral interests.”

Levy took a moment to speak about why this issue is seen as so important, what’s at stake for both sides, and how its impact reaches far beyond the ultra-Orthodox enclave.

Zman Yisrael: What exactly is the argument between Avigdor Liberman’s secular Yisrael Beytenu party and the ultra-Orthodox parties, and what is the compromise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed?

Levy: The argument is as follows. Liberman would like the bill [which passed a first reading last July, but still needs to pass two more Knesset votes before it becomes law] to include the option of using criminal sanctions against people who do not enlist, while the ultra-Orthodox would like to keep it more amorphous and leave that decision up to the government, which has more ability to maneuver.

The disagreement is between the view that ultra-Orthodox enlistment should fall under the regulations of mandatory enlistment [which apply for the rest of Israel’s Jewish population] — that is, the state issues the enlistment order, and forces anyone who disobeys to enlist according to its formal regulations. The ultra-Orthodox want to keep the status quo, which sees enlistment [for them] as effectively voluntary.

In other words, it’s true that there are [currently] legal enlistment quotas [for the ultra-Orthodox], but in the end there are negotiations with the rabbis and the community leaders. Where there are ultra-Orthodox men who drop out of the yeshiva world — those who are referred to as shababnikim or by other terms — and who find themselves outside the yeshiva circle, they can be made to enlist. Those who are within the yeshiva cannot be made to enlist. This situation gives a great deal of power to the rabbis and the yeshiva heads.

A March 2019 demonstration in Jerusalem against the forced enlistment of one ultra-Orthodox soldier. (Noam Rivkin/Flash90)

In what way do you see Liberman’s insistence on enlistment reform as credible?

It’s credible from the perspective that he sees himself as representing a sector that enlists in the army in large numbers — the immigrants from the former Soviet Union. He is demanding, in their name, equal responsibility [from the Haredim]. Moderate parties, such as Naftali Bennett’s [New Right] party, could ostensibly make a similar demand.

But the religious Zionist movement does not want to be in a position of conflict with the ultra-Orthodox population… Yesh Atid is an exception — it sees itself as the representative of the enlistees, and for good reason: army enlistment was one of its major symbols.

In that sense, Liberman means what he says.

In what way is his insistence not credible?

He and others have a great deal of interest not necessarily in a solution to the problem, but in its perpetuation, in making the subject of ultra-Orthodox enlistment a permanent focus for dispute. This is on the assumption that the percentage of exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox population will always be higher than it is among the other Jewish groups. This situation helps secular parties set a clear boundary between those who are in the ultimate Israeli collective and those who are outside it, be they ultra-Orthodox people or Arabs — in other words, groups that do not serve. By doing so, the [secular parties] can redraw the definition of proper “Israeliness.”

Illustrative: Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is hosted by Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman (left), at a meal to celebrate the birth of Litzman’s grandson, June 18, 2017. (Shlomi Cohen/FLASH90)

How does this serve the ultra-Orthodox?

The radical ones among them are seen as protecting the Torah world, and the yeshivas themselves prevent the enlistment of those who do not want to join. As rabbis, they have a great deal of bargaining power with their students: “Either you persevere in your studies, or you don’t — and we throw you out and you’ll have to enlist.” By virtue of this argument, as long as the world of quotas exists, they can negotiate with the army and the state. This gives them control that nobody else in Israel has. Unlike the population that has to enlist, here there’s an intermediary who, in the end, determines to a large extent who will go and who won’t, on the group level and on the individual level too. Every yeshiva head has this power.

How do the Arabs see this argument?

The leaders of the Arab population prefer that this argument go on without them and that the state not be tempted to impose mandatory army service on Arabs. In the end, the radical right wing might be tempted for a moment to make enlistment or national service mandatory for Arabs. The Arabs do not want that because that will take the young people out of their control and create a stronger connection between them and the state’s conformist institutions, and they have no interest in that. It’s also not certain that it’s in the state’s interest, since the job market is limited in its ability to absorb those who do civilian national service without creating injustices.

The right wing and others have an interest in testing the Arabs this way, and perhaps in creating a group of people who refuse to enlist. This will serve those who claim that they are not loyal to the state. The Arabs themselves take no active position on this matter, and prefer that the argument continue to take place among Jews.

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