The latest guidelines for conscription of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, presented by far-right Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has reignited debate on the issue of compulsory military service.
But while Zionist politicians are divided over the existing law and compromise proposals, Knesset members from four disparate parties have joined forces to promote legislation ending military conscription altogether. Knesset member Dov Khenin (Hadash – Joint List), Menachem Moses of the ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah party and his coalition partner from the Likud, Yehuda Glick, have joined forces with secular Mossi Raz and Issawi Frej from Meretz to end the country’s compulsory military service.
At the age of 18, while young people in the other countries are joining the labor force or acquiring an education, their Israeli counterparts go into an employment freeze. Few regular soldiers, barring technicians and computer programmers, acquire skills during their military service that are relevant to the civilian market.
According to the bill’s explanatory notes, already over a third of those required by law to enlist in the military do not do so, compared with a quarter in 1990. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of soldiers discharged as being unsuited to military service has grown by 15%.
According to data from 2009, the current conscription system is a heavy burden on the state budget, an annual 9 billion shekels ($2.5 billion), or 1.2% of the GDP, because of hidden unemployment in the military and the removal of Israelis aged 18 to 21 from the labor force for two to three years. This money could be allocated to improving the school system, scientific research, the university system or the building of housing.
Despite the strength of its supporters’ arguments, the multi-party bill repealing conscription could end up in the Knesset archives. Even though the Israel’s military is considered the strongest army in the region, and even though entire brigades are serving in the occupied West Bank protecting the settlers living beyond the boundaries of the state and firing at Gaza protesters, questioning compulsory service in Israel’s army is still taboo.
The militarist Israeli education teaches 18-year-old men and women soldiers that guarding illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian West Bank is “defense of the state.”
Regularly lecturers sent by the army’s rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox Chabad proselytizers are invited to speak at army bases and tell recruits that they were fortunate to have taken part in a Divinely-sanctioned “mitzvah” (commandment) war. By contrast, activists of the anti-occupation organizations like Breaking the Silence, Yesh Gvul and Messarvot who expose the injustice of the occupation they experienced during their military service and call to refuse to serve in the occupied territories, are totally banned from army facilities.