The recent ruling by Israel's High Court concerning the Tal Law (which formalizes the exemption of yeshiva students from serving in the IDF) once again placed the question of military service for haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth at the center of the public debate. In addition to the bizarre attitude of the judges toward the law (perversely approving it while vigorously condemning it), a noteworthy aspect of this affair is that nearly all the parties pushing for greater equality in sharing the burden of national security, are associated with the political left.
This situation reflects a major defect in the conduct of the "national camp" - both in terms of its code of morality and of its promotion of its utilitarian self-interest. In fact, for the Israeli right-wing, the issue of haredi enlistment should provide a rare opportunity in which the ethically proper decision should coincide perfectly with the self-seeking pursuit of hardnosed electoral advantage.
The reasons for this are clear:
On one hand, there is an undeniable – and wholly unacceptable – moral anomaly in a situation where those who call for adopting an uncompromising posture towards the Arabs and oppose territorial concession, but appear willing to permit a segment of the population, which they see as a political ally, to evade the burden that that policy implies – while calling on those who oppose such policy to bear its burden.
On another, practical level, it is difficult to imagine any other measure that would likely garner more support outside traditional circles of right-wing voters than a resolute demand to enlist haredi youth into the IDF. Moreover, there is little chance that traditional voters will switch their support to left-wing parties – since these parties would hardly be willing, or able, to oppose the enlistment initiative in order to curry favor with the ultra-religious yeshiva students.
Accordingly, while this would be a move devoid of any substantial political risk, it could be capable of dispelling old stigmas, and of changing stereotypical misconceptions which have dogged the national camp for decades – and breathe new life and fresh relevance into the right-wing's wilting and withering public image.
Furthermore, the demand for haredi military service is likely to carry more moral validity and have a more authentic ring to it if it comes from the right rather than from the left. For it is difficult to escape the uneasy feeling that when left-wing elements push for enlistment of the ultra-orthodox, there is an element of malicious harassment and more than a little hypocrisy in their demand.
Indeed, it is doubtful if the left-wing activists would really like to see entire brigades of bearded combat soldiers, side locks protruding from their helmets and a glint of Messianic zeal in their eyes, with an automatic firearm slung across their shoulders. On the other hand, for the right-wing, having the IDF's ranks bolstered by a multitude of troops infused with fiery religious motivation is a far less worrisome prospect.
The call for the enlistment of yeshiva students should not be construed as a measure detrimental to the haredi sector. Quite the opposite is true: Indeed, it would be difficult to conceive of any other move that would so enhance its image in the eyes of the Israeli public at large, reduce the hostility towards it in secular circles, bolster its legitimacy in the face of determined efforts to undermine it, and pull the rug out from under its detractors.
Accordingly, by studiously avoiding this issue, right-wing leaders are guilty of both a serious ethical breach and a grave practical blunder which indicates not only a disturbing lack of moral leadership but also of political acumen. Continued disregard of this matter, and its negative ramifications on the fabric of the nation, prevent the national camp from commanding the high moral ground and seriously constrict the freedom of maneuver of its representatives.
For example it is difficult not notice their deafening silence in the face of Lt. General Dan Halutz's unfortunate remarks last Thursday, when in effect, he provided a rationale for future secular evasion of military service, by declaring: "There is no reason for my children to serve if others do not". Only an uncompromising demand for compulsory military service for the haredi youth by right-wing leaders will afford them the moral right to insist that the Chief of Staff take back his ill-advised statement and call on him to rephrase it along the following lines: "If my children do serve, there is no reason why others should not".
The change of wording would be indeed slight, but the significance of the change and message it conveys to the Israeli public, in terms of national commitment and Zionist spirit, enormous.
Martin Sherman acted as a ministerial advisor in the 1991-2 Shamir government and served for seven years in various defense related capacities