Israel is facing a crisis within society over the issue of recruiting ultra-Orthodox — Haredi — Jews into the Israel Defence Forces. A new organisation has been formed by mothers whose children are about to be drafted into the IDF. They reject government plans pushed through by ultra-Orthodox parties in the government coalition to amend the law in order to give Haredi Jews blanket exemption from military service.
“We are mothers who raised our daughters and sons on the values of loving the homeland and contributing to its defence and we agreed for years to risk what is dearest to us, realising this,” wrote Mothers on the Frontlines on social media. “This is part of the contract between us and the state. Nothing more. If the conscription law is passed, we will agree to prevent our children from joining the Israeli army.”
The current law requires all citizens and permanent residents, male and female, to serve in the military. Females who reach the age of 18 must serve for two years, while males must serve at least 32 months. However, the Haredi Jews refuse conscription and want to be free to “serve God” instead of military service.
According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, the Haredi Jews are the fastest growing social group in Israel with a population growth rate of four per cent, compared with the overall rate of 2.3 per cent. They number around 1.28 million. Their ultra-Orthodox position means that they adhere to the details of Jewish law and rituals in their daily lives. They dismiss the calls for equality in bearing the burden of military service by claiming that full-time study of the Torah provides “spiritual protection” for Israel.
Haredi Jews are not the only group in Israel which is not currently conscripted into the IDF. Twenty per cent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Arabs. While they are not required to serve in the military, some, especially Bedouin, go ahead and enlist. Those who do this are often regarded as “traitors” in their local communities. The Islamic Movement in Northern Israel, headed by Sheikh Raed Salah, issued a religious edict some years ago prohibiting Muslims from serving in the Israeli armed forces. The fatwa also forbids funeral prayers being performed in mosques affiliated with the movement for any Muslim killed while serving in the IDF.
Israel’s Druze community agreed as long ago as 1965 that its members could be recruited by the IDF in return for some communal privileges. However, some Druze activists have rejected conscription in recent years. According to a study by the University of Haifa, around 65 per cent of the Druze population refuse military service. A similar study for the annual Herzliya Conference suggested that 54 per cent of the Druze refuse to be conscripted.
According to the Knesset State Control Committee, the percentage of those exempted from regular service had risen from 7.9 per cent in 2018 to 11.9 per cent in 2020. The figure is expected to rise to 13 per cent this year.
Aside from political grounds for rejecting conscription, increasing numbers refuse to serve because of government policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, or because they reject violence of any kind. In 2017, 63 young Israeli men and women wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “We, dozens of young individuals, write this letter of ours to state our refusal to join the Israeli army, which implements a racist government policy that violates basic human rights, and applies one law to Israelis and another to Palestinians residing on the same land; therefore, we decided not to participate in the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people.”
While the Israeli Supreme Court approved the possibility of exempting a person from service in 2002, it distinguished between pacifism and “selective conscientious objection” that threatens to “weaken the bonds that unite us as a nation.” In 2016, the Israeli Knesset approved a seven-year prison sentence for those who incite young people against conscription in the IDF.
Druze who refuse compulsory conscription in Israel are subjected to military trials and prison sentences ranging from five to 30 days. These sentences may be renewed over and over to put pressure them to change their mind and enlist before their files are transferred to the military prosecutors. This is Israel: while some minorities are forced into military service, others are given exemption.