Many years ago, my friends and I used to escape from diaper-changing and car-pooling by gathering at a local hangout to drink espresso, smoke cigarettes and shoot the breeze (a.k.a. whine) about our kids, husbands, finances, and — sigh — politics. Because we were not all on the same ideological side, however, we tended to stick to issues about which there was a “national consensus” — those topics safe enough not to cause any actual rifts. After all, what we cared about most and had most in common with each other during those child-rearing years far outweighed all the other matters of life-and-death significance we watched on the news.
In fact, whatever else was going on in Israel or abroad, our own little universes centered on whether we could get through the week without having mommy melt-downs or extra-marital flings. And when unsuccessful at the endeavor, at least we had each other’s shoulders to cry on.
It was at one of these “parliament meetings” (as we referred to them) that the topic of haredim (ultra-Orthodox) not serving in the military arose.
“The army doesn’t really want them,” one participant commented. “It’s too costly and too much trouble for the IDF to incorporate them.”
“But it’s not fair that our kids have to give up years of their lives — not to mention the months of subsequent reserve duty — while those parasites get to sit in a yeshiva and study all day at our expense,” said another.
Here is where I piped in. The only one of us not born in the Holy Land, I chalked it up to the wacky system of government that enabled a fringe population — albeit increasing demographically — to set a different set of societal rules for itself than the rest of the country.
“As soon as their political-blackmail power is taken away from them, they will have to pay their dues, in taxes and otherwise,” I insisted. “Then they will be in uniform just like everybody else.”
“Oh yeah?” responded the chief left-winger of the group. “Well, I don’t think anyone should wear an IDF uniform.” (Indeed, when her sons became of age, each dodged the draft legally.)
This was not the first time I encountered the “strange bedfellows” alliance among radicals on either end of the spectrum; nor would it be the last. It was nevertheless a choice smile-inducing moment.
But it was nothing compared to this week’s circus surrounding the Plesner Committee for Equality in National Service. Now that the opportunity ostensibly has arisen to alter the political system — due to Kadima's sudden entry into the Likud-led coalition — the first “consensual” order of business being tackled is military-service inequity.
Naturally, the left-wing committee members are seeking to force the haredim to do their duty. Two right-wing parties, Yisrael Beytenu and the New National Religious Party, got in a huff over this, not because they don’t agree that the haredim should have to don uniforms or perform some other type of national service, but rather because of another population in this country that they feel should be included in the new arrangement: the Arab citizens of Israel.
After resigning from the committee on Thursday afternoon, both parties seem to have reconsidered their exit. This is because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talked to Arab MKs on Thursday evening, and told them that, though the Plesner committee’s recommendations were not to penalize Arab draft dodgers, he thinks it’s only fair that their exemptions, like those of the haredim up until now, should be revoked.
Reminded of my old “parliament” pal, I was anticipating coming across a movement against any and all military service. Instead, I found something juicier. A group of women — former security-services honchos — sent a letter to Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak warning against the inclusion of haredim in the military, so as not to turn “the people’s army into the men’s army.”
The epistle cited “reports of numerous instances of exclusion of women and violation of female soldiers' rights due to demands by external elements, and by haredi or religious officers and soldiers.”
Signatories to the letter included: Brig. Gen. (res.) Orit Adato, the former head of the Prison Service; Brig. Gen. (res.) Yisraela Oron; former IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. (res.) Ruth Yaron; Col. (res.) Miri Eisen, the prime minister's foreign media adviser during the Second Lebanon War; Brig. Gen. (res.) Yehudit Ben Natan; Brig. Gen. (res.) Rachel Dolev; former Chief Military Censor and Chief Military Defender Brig. Gen. (res.) Suzie Yogev.
One can hear the haredim, who are up in arms (so to speak) over the proposed worsening of their “work conditions,” giving those women a 21-gun salute this very minute.
This is a conundrum that even our coffee-klatch parliament couldn’t have solved. Heaven help Netanyahu.
Ruthie Blum, a former senior editor at The Jerusalem Post, is the author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring,’” soon to be released by RVP Press.