Miri Baron takes off her black T-shirt that carries the slogan of the Forum for Equality in the National Burden: "Army Service = For Everyone." The forum is a grass roots organization that battles the incidence of dodging military service and advocates sharing the burden of military service.
"Now I'm more comfortable saying what's in my heart," says Baron, chairwoman of the forum. "Now I can say that when our little 16-year-old daughter receives her IDF draft notice, I'll tear it to pieces, and then I'll ask the Knesset members who voted in favor of the amendment to the draft law: 'How dare you call on her to enlist?'
"I'll advise her to refuse to join the army; that until everyone enlists, she shouldn't. I'm not sure she'll take my advice as that is not how we raised our four children, but I'll give her my opinion."
Baron will also be advising her son, who is a reservist in the Nahal Brigade, not to show up for his reserve duty next time. That's how badly she has lost confidence in the defense system after years of leading the fight against draft dodging. "They broke me," she admits.
We met at the entrance plaza to Tel Aviv University. Baron, 57, a kindergarten teacher from Givat Shmuel, was joined by her comrades to the struggle, Zohara Berger-Tzur and Orna Kochavi, and several dozens of protesters demonstrating against the amendment to the draft law, which extends the period of time the government is required to implement the law until 2023.
"Equality in the burden of service!" shouted the students, most of whom serve in the reserves. Anger was evident on their faces. What they did not know was that as soon as the amendment passes in the Knesset, Baron, the leader of the struggle, will be stepping down. They did not know that she has given up and surrendered to forces bigger and more powerful than her, to shady deals.
"I hope the students will now stand at the forefront of the fight, along with the forum's activists," says Baron. "I hope their voice is heard so that this country can continue being their home, because now they feel cheated: The government is asking them to die for the country, but is letting others avoid the same fate."
Even though Baron is planning to step down from the helm of the forum, it appears we have not seen the last of her. She is already issuing harsh statements that can only be interpreted as a public call for draft-dodging.
"I'm going to be a lot less polite," she says, "because I fear for the future of the country. Unfortunately, this is not the case with young people. I talk to them and they say it is not worth it to live here. Even my kids talk about leaving the country. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, I'm shocked to hear it, but I can understand them."
'We were naïve'
It all began after the 1997 helicopter disaster in which 73 soldiers were killed. "After the disaster, I decided to join the Shelach association (acronym for National General Service), founded by Noam Semel, because I saw the rising trend of people shirking their army service and I was horrified," said Baron.
In 2007, after the Second Lebanon War, she was horrified again, this time because of the passing of the Tal Law in 2002, which did not lead to the equality in the burden of service that she had hoped for.
The Deferral of Military Service for Yeshiva Students Law, also known as the Tal Law, enabled a continuation of the exemptions given to yeshiva students from army service, subject to certain conditions.
"I read an article by Yossi Yehoshua in Yedioth Ahronoth which said that one in every four Israelis does not enlist, and I decided to do something. I gathered some friends in my living room and set up the forum. We were naïve citizens who believed they could change things, and we wrote the principles for which we would fight on a napkin: That every citizen must serve, whether it be military or civilian service, and whoever gives more, gets more. To this day we have not changed our motto. "
Who funded your organization?
"No one. Everything came out of our own pockets, except for a brief period in which high-tech executive Reuven Agassi provided us with office space and a budget. After he saw we were too polite, he left. Since then, my fellow activists and I pay our own way and take trains and buses. That's how we get to the Knesset or to the tent we set up near the Kirya (IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv)."
Eight years have passed since you established the forum and started your struggle. It would appear you failed.
"When we started the fight, we had nothing against the ultra-Orthodox. We strongly believed that every citizen should contribute. It angered us that a girl like (Israeli model) Bar Refaeli did not serve but gets to do fashion campaigns, and we came out against that. We were annoyed that (Israeli actor) Oshri Cohen was proud of the fact that he didn't serve in the army and then went on to play soldiers in movies. A new norm was created in which dodging army service became cool. In this respect, we succeeded. There is no famous person today that does not serve in the army. Even (Israeli singer) Maya Bouskilla fought to be enlisted and others are requesting to do reserve duty. Celebrity draft-dodging has come to an end. That is important, and it succeeded."
And the ultra-Orthodox?
"We failed with them. When we found out just how many ultra-Orthodox men evade army service following the passing of the Tal Law, we were shocked. We filed a petition to the Supreme Court along with other organizations. We tried to influence the leaders on the right and left, to get them to wake up and act. The Supreme Court overturned the law, but only in 2012. We will also petition the court regarding the current law, but years will pass before they deal with it. Until then, they will tell us again and again 'maybe it will happen,' and 'we will review processes,' etc.It's frustrating."
Where were the politicians while you were fighting?
"With us. Before the elections they were all in our protest tent. Everyone supported us. (Culture Minister) Miri Regev visited our tent and marched with us to Jerusalem and jumped and screamed and promised, 'We'll bring equality'. But this week she supported the amendment and made the situation worse. (Justice Minister) Ayelet Shaked was among the leaders of the draft law in the previous Knesset but has now supported another eight years of evasion. How can she be justice minister? Naftali Bennett, how can he be the education minister while violating the most basic values of the society he is supposed to educate? Even Likud MK Yoav Kish, who was a leading member of the forum, a combat pilot, voted in favor of the amendment at the first reading. How could he? I'm so angry with him. We fought together, and now you vote against everything we fought for?"
Kish is doing what the coalition is forcing him to do. In fact, what the prime minister is forcing him to do. Perhaps your anger should be directed elsewhere.
"Prime Minister Netanyahu called us in the middle of the night before an important speech, and promised us the moon. And what came of it? Nothing. I am angry with our leaders, the prime minister and the defense minister. I am disappointed in them. Ya'alon, who led the soldiers to the battlefield, he should have especially mobilized to help those bearing the burden. I truly feel that he betrayed the soldiers."
At one point in the conversation, Baron's voice broke slightly, and she said, "No, I cannot go on. If the amendment is approved, I cannot continue to lead this forum. I'll take leave of my friends, and will feel free to say what's on my heart, to turn to every mother and father and say to them: 'Think hard before letting your kids get on the bus at the induction center and join the IDF.'"
You are in essence calling for draft-dodging.
"It's hard for me to say that word, but yes: Either everyone enlists or nobody does. If Israel decides that the IDF is not the people's army, then one needn't enlist. So yes, refuse in order to shake the very foundations. I have no other country, and I am fighting for it."
Back to the square one
Baron claims to be at peace with her call for draft-dodging, but there were forum members that had reservations about this extreme approach.
"Yes," she said, "There were tensions, there were arguments. In the end, we all have children who have served or will serve in the army, making it difficult for us to tell others to break the law. There were those who agreed with me and said that unless radical action is taken, nothing will change. Others thought otherwise. The majority decided against me. Now I feel betrayed because of what happened this week, so I'm stepping down as chairwoman of the forum. We're back to square one."
The ultra-Orthodox won again?
"It's very hard for me to say this, because by saying this it means the country lost. But the truth is that in terms of the result, we, the forum, failed. No one gives a damn about us. They take those who serve, those who carry the burden of service, for granted. And if the ultra-Orthodox believe so strongly that they are serving the people by learning Torah, then we won't enlist. We'll see how the Army of God protects us."
Zohara Berger-Tzur, the forum's spokeswoman, said she envies the ultra-Orthodox. "Yes, I'm jealous that they have MKs who fight for them. The feeling is that Netanyahu brought them to a candy store and told them, 'Take what you want and as much as you want.'
"Bibi received 30 seats (in the Knesset), so why is he giving in to the ultra-Orthodox? It seems he's just worried about his position and his coalition. It's very upsetting."
On Thursday, Baron went to the Knesset, to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting, in order to look Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and MK Yoav Kish in the eyes.
"I looked them in the eyes and reminded them what the prime minister said after a meeting with us three years ago: 'The sharing of the burden of army service must change. What was will no longer be.' I then turned to Knesset members from Likud and told them: 'How dare you give a hand to discrimination based on blood. How dare you not to act for those carrying the burden.' After the amendment passes - and I'm not kidding myself that it will not - I will retire from the forum. But the MKs should not be mistaken: I will still be there in front of them, wearing another hat, and then I will be much less polite."