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In Fight Over Military Service, Israeli Lawmaker Suggests Ending Conscription for All

Moshe Feiglin knows upending the ‘people’s army’ is a long shot, but he’s not alone in arguing it’s the best way forward

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews holding a placard that reads in English “Military service will not be imposed upon us” take part in a mass prayer vigil in Jerusalem on March 2, 2014, in protest at plans to conscript young ultra-Orthodox men for Israeli military or civilian service. (David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)
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Moshe Feiglin, the 51-year-old member of Knesset, is the enfant terrible of the Likud. He’s best-known for his hardline politics and aggressive tactics; in 1997, before becoming an elected official, he was sentenced to six months’ community service on charges of sedition for his role in organizing a massive 1995 traffic blockage in opposition to the Oslo peace process, and last year, as a member of Knesset, he was detained for trying to pray at the Temple Mount. He blends his hawkish politics with libertarianism and is a passionate supporter of legalizing both medical and recreational cannabis.

But perhaps his most radical proposal, as far as most Israelis are concerned, is to professionalize the army—the most sacrosanct national institution. In June of last year he founded a caucus in the Knesset around the idea of replacing the current conscription model with a paid volunteer force. Feiglin argues there is no military or strategic reason to have a standing army of around 100,000 young men and women under arms.  He views the army as a tool the state uses to “divide and conquer” its citizens. “Mandatory conscription has nothing to do with security,” he wrote in a 2012 article in The Jewish Press. “On the contrary, it is detrimental to security. But in a state founded on the security ethos, the power to forcibly conscript or excuse from conscription is the power to determine who is the insider and who is the outsider.”

The issue has been a hot topic since February 2012, when Israel’s Supreme Court issued a sweeping ruling that found broad exemptions from mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox men to be discriminatory against those who were not exempt and, therefore, a violation of Israel’s Basic Law. Earlier this year, the government passed legislation compelling young haredi men, who for years had received exemptions for Torah study, to enlist or face sanctions that included prison time. Known as the Equal Service Bill, the law sets targets for enlisting yeshiva students. In early March, between 300,000 and 500,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews clogged the streets of Jerusalem, one of the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history—all gender-segregated.

But that clash between the State of Israel and its rapidly growing haredi community could, in theory, be avoided if instead of attempting to forcibly induct young men who are religiously opposed to military service, the government simply replaced the “people’s army” with a professional volunteer Israel Defense Force, eliminating the basis for the court’s finding of discrimination against ultra-Orthodox Israelis. It’s a tough sell: The IDF is perceived by the Israeli public as more than just a defense force. Service is a rite of passage, a socialization process, and a civic duty in the republican sense. Much of modern Hebrew slang is incomprehensible to those who do not serve; the experience is central to understanding a certain strain of Israeliness, including equanimity in the face of maddening bureaucracy.

Feiglin is joined by a handful of journalists, academics, and backbench lawmakers arguing in favor of a professional army for a variety of reasons—including some who support the idea because eliminating mandatory service could remove a barrier for integration of Israeli Arabs into the upper echelons of society. Accepting it would mean letting go not just of the social role played by the IDF, but of a certain romantic idea of Israelis as a nation of warriors. Yet, Feiglin argues, it’s an idea whose time has come. “It is hard for young people to abandon the [people’s army concept] because the ethos of security is to be part of the tribe,” he says. “But you don’t need a genius to see we don’t need it.”

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Although the IDF has its origins in the Haganah, a fighting force designed to face the immediate threats to Israel in 1948, David Ben Gurion and other founding fathers of the state quickly came to view the IDF as a vast cultural crucible that would transform Diaspora Jews, with all their Diaspora neuroses, into “new Jews.” Modeled partly after the Swiss system, the “people’s army” was also envisioned by the first generation of Labor Zionist leaders, influenced in part by the Soviets, as an equalizer that would obfuscate societal differences between rich and poor, educated and unschooled, at a time when traumatized Jews from all corners of the Diaspora were pouring into the new state.

In the first decades after the establishment of the country, what sociologist Baruch Kimmerling referred to as the “Ahusalim”—a Hebrew acronym for Ashkenazi, secular, socialist, nationalist—dominated the IDF’s most elite fighting units and the ranks of its infantry officers. But by the 1980s and 1990s that began to change, as Yagil Levy, an expert in civil-military relations at Israel’s Open University, noted in his 2007 book Israel’s Materialist Militarism. The children and grandchildren of the early IDF elites preferred serving in newly formed intelligence and cyber units that offered fewer opportunities for valor and more practical training in advanced technologies—and offered enlistees important professional contacts for post-army life.

They have been replaced in recent years by “peripheral” groups such as mizrachim—Jews from Muslim countries—as well as immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopians, and religious Zionists, all of whom began flocking to infantry units and the border police with the hope that combat service would give them the societal status enjoyed by the old elites—something that hasn’t happened on a large scale, according to Levy. Today, only 53.5 percent of Israeli men serve, and only 37 percent of women, the Jerusalem Institute of Market Studies found. But the institute’s analysis also suggests that half of the jobnik, or administrative, positions in the IDF—which occupy a majority of conscripts—could be eliminated, a point supported by the recent comedy film Zero Motivation, which parodied the boredom and postponed dreams of female soldiers in the IDF. (The film won Best Narrative Feature last month at the Tribeca Film Festival.)

Feiglin sees all this as evidence of a system that fails both to live up to its goal of unifying all Israelis and to focus on its core mission, which is national defense. “How is it possible that all the wars up to Yom Kippur, we had a population that was much smaller and we had only 2.5 years of service, and we didn’t have women in combat units,” he asked. “But today we have women in combat and three years of service and yet the Arab armies have declined, the threat of conventional war is much less?” The economics support his case, he argued: According to the World Bank, Israel’s defense expenditures made up 5.7 percent of GDP in 2012, larger than any other country for that year except Saudi Arabia, Oman, and South Sudan.

He came to the idea of a professional army partly thanks to his opposition to the consensus over Oslo in the 1990s. “I had many struggles with Israeli society, and it opened my mind to new ideas,” he said. Though he sees himself as very Israeli he notes that he became close to many Americans, for whom a lack of a national draft is taken for granted. But his proposed reform wouldn’t abolish universal service, just shorten it, to a mere six weeks from the current three years. “They would learn how to use a gun,” he explained. “They would be registered, and those who want to go on and volunteer can.” He knows the idea is a long shot, for political reasons as much as philosophical ones. “Ninety-nine percent support the security ethos,” he acknowledged. His modest office is on the basement level of the Knesset building. He keeps a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote on his wall to sustain him: “Good men must not obey the laws too well.”

The idea of changing the system has been floated before. In the 1990s, before the Second Intifada, polls conducted by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies showed nearly a quarter of Israelis supported ending the draft system. Yet the experience of the intervening years has pushed many who might have once favored the idea back toward the status quo.

One example is Ofer Shelah, No. 6 on the list for Yesh Atid, whose leader, Yair Lapid, campaigned in 2013 on a platform that included ending the draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Shelah, a former journalist who covered military issues, was one of the party’s most outspoken proponents of equal service for all—but in 2003, he wrote a book called Magash HakesefSilver Platter—in which he argued in favor of professionalizing the IDF. “At the heart of the thesis of Silver Platter,” says the synopsis on the book jacket, “stands the demand, with all its implications, to do away with mandatory draft and give up on the sanctified and anachronistic concept of the IDF as ‘the people’s army.’ ”(When asked recently about his change in view, he claimed he never took any such position.)

Military officials are decidedly against the idea. “Our advantage is that we can choose the very best people to be pilots, to serve in cyber units and in elite combat units,” said Lt. Col. Nir Ne’eman, head of the Tel Hashomer induction center where all recruits are brought to be tested, processed, and placed. “As soon as there is a professional army we will not have access to these people.” And, he added, “There are still people who don’t want us to be here. Unfortunately, we still need to rely on our military strength, and we need the very best in the cockpit.” He also insisted that the IDF plays a crucial role in preparing young Israelis for professional life. “When I see someone who comes from a poor background with little education I know that he will not become a combat soldier. I might even use him for just three-quarters of the day,” Ne’eman said. “But I will be able to help him and prepare him for civilian life and give him a job. That is the meaning of a ‘people’s army.’ ”

Others warn about the risks of self-selection inherent in abolishing the draft. Levy, the military analyst, argued that the chief concern is that a volunteer army would be dominated by religious Zionists and other groups with highly nationalist sensibilities—which, in the context of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, could be disastrous. “This is particularly problematic for a military that is involved in combat with a civilian population in Gaza, on the West Bank and in Lebanon,” Levy said.

Yet, increasingly, Feiglin is finding fellow travelers across the ideological spectrum who see establishing a professional army as a way of solving a number of economic and social problems, including the clash between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular mainstream. Aluf Benn, the editor of Ha’aretz, has editorialized in favor of making the switch, chiefly because the demographics show the numbers of those who seek or are granted exemption—not only the ultra-Orthodox, but Arab Israelis, too—will only grow in coming years. “No one really thinks that the boys of Sachnin and Ramat Beit Shemesh will be hunted down and transported to the enlistment bureau,” he wrote in 2012. “It hasn’t happened, and it won’t happen. … The people’s army will become the minority’s army.”

Free-market economists emphasize a similar point. “Look at army service as a form of tax,” says Corinne Sauer, executive director of the Jerusalem Institute of Market Studies. “People who serve are being heavily taxed compared to their peers.”Also, Sauer argued, while mandatory draft lowers the IDF’s costs to taxpayers by providing cheap manpower—soldiers are paid only $120 a month—it comes at the expense of lost opportunities for the tens of thousands of young people who spend three years of their lives in the army getting paid less than they might in the private sector. “That is money that would have gone into the economy,” she said.

Ultimately, Feiglin’s most enthusiastic political allies are those who want to maintain the tradition of exempting religious students from service. “The only way to extinguish the flame of secular extremism in the hearts of people like Lapid is to create a professional army that will stop trying to brainwash or re-educate people and focus instead solely on security,” said Yisrael Eichler, an MK from the Hasidic Agudah faction of the United Torah Judaism party. If that happened, he predicted, ultra-Orthodox Jews who weren’t enrolled in yeshiva might even be willing to enlist. “Haredim would no longer be threatened by the option of military service,” he suggested, “and many would choose to join.”

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In Fight Over Military Service, Israeli Lawmaker Suggests Ending Conscription for All

Moshe Feiglin knows upending the ‘people’s army’ is a long shot, but he’s not alone in arguing it’s the best way forward