Commentary Magazine


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Israel’s Democratic Revolution

As the Arab Spring drifts away from its democratic promise, there is one place in the Middle East where democracy is proving both resilient and capable of responding to a nation’s most intractable difficulties: Israel.

You can be forgiven for not noticing, as the normally Israel-obsessed Western press finds itself strangely tongue-tied on this matter, but the Jewish state appears to be on the verge of completing a reform of its law governing the draft of its citizens into national service. In a country where since its birth all non-Haredi Jews have been both legally and culturally bound to military service on their 18th birthday, the extension of that service requirement to the Arab and Haredi minorities, even if most will not serve in the military, would be a revolution of epic proportions.

The exclusion of the non-Jewish and Haredi minorities from the ideal of national service is a wound that has steadily torn at Israel’s national fabric for decades. The exclusions came about for different reasons: Arabs were seen – for reason – as holding conflicting loyalties that would make military service not possible for most. The Haredi exclusion (ostensibly for yeshiva students alone) was born of Israel’s first foray into coalition politics, a price demanded by the Haredi political parties the Labor Zionist David Ben-Gurion needed to form a government that would not include his rivals on the Revisionist right.

Over time, both of the exclusions have grown untenable, also for their own reasons. While the Druze community has taken on military service for decades, and it is an option at least theoretically open to any Israeli Arab, the failure of the majority of the Arab minority to participate has served as a barrier to their integration into Israeli society, and so has likely played its role in the increased radicalization of Israeli Arab political leadership in the past decade.

For the Haredim, an exclusion that once applied to a few hundred has grown to absolve as many as 60,000 young men of draftable age a year, making the draft exemption, along with the lack of full Haredi workforce participation and explosive demographic growth, a potent symbol of the growing unequal burden carried by the non-Haredi Jewish majority.

The one-state demographic doomsayers to the side, the combination of the increased alienation from the state on the part of its largest non-Jewish minority and its fastest growing Jewish sector has recently felt like the most pressing state crisis for many Israelis. As writers like Daniel Gordis have long been pointing out, it is this future, of a decreasing Zionist majority pinned between populations that do not contribute to and actively draw resources from the Jewish state, that has seemed most frightening and disastrous, in particular because solving it requires the coalescence of the fractured parties representing the Zionist majority who have proven themselves adept at avoiding the problem for decades.

All of this is reason to applaud the current horse-trading between these groups in the Knesset. No doubt whatever law that emerges will be far from perfect. It is also far from clear a significant reform will in fact ultimately be passed.

But the historic coalition formed this past spring by Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu and the head of his former opposition Shaul Mofaz set the stage for the opportunity. Waged in Israel’s characteristically combative democratic style, the government’s potential passage of a new draft law that would incorporate all of Israel’s citizens into some form of national service represents a potential refounding of the state as one whose burdens and privileges are a burden shared equally by all.