Self-interest that hurts the state

By Geoffrey Alderman, July 16, 2012

Everything that infuriates me about Israeli politics and society was encapsulated in two decisions taken in Jerusalem last week. The first concerns the status of Ariel University Centre in the West Bank. The second relates to the arrangements by which Israel's so-called "ultra Orthodox" citizens are able to avoid military service.

Ariel (of which I am a "guest professor") began life in 1982 as a branch of Bar-Ilan University. The centre became independent seven years ago, and currently boasts some 14,000 students - Jews, Druze and Arabs. Situated where it is, its activities have naturally attracted some hostility and the sporadic attention of boycotters but when I lectured there last year it was clearly a thriving academic institution, awarding its own internationally recognised degrees and carrying out world-class research.

Ariel is a fully-fledged university in all but name. It was in pursuit of this status that it applied to Israel's Council for Higher Education. Last week, the council's planning committee recommended that the application be rejected. Media reports initially suggested that the committee was exercised primarily by the fear that upgrading Ariel's status would bring upon the whole of Israeli higher education the wrath of the international boycotting community.

While it is true that the boycott brigades within Israel lobbied hard against Ariel's application, their activities had little if any bearing upon the recommendation. The truth is that the CHE is dominated by Israel's academic establishment, which acts primarily to protect its monopoly of the access to public funding that full university status permits. Ariel is in danger of falling victim to a species of particularly malodorous selfishness that protects privilege without the slightest shame.

It is this same malodorous selfishness that is at the heart of the current crisis over the issue of military service for Israeli Charedim.

Many Charedim might welcome conscription

The exemption from compulsory military service enjoyed by Charedim dates back to when David Ben Gurion agreed to a request from Avraham Karelitz, a charismatic rabbinic authority in Mandate Palestine, to exempt from the draft a small quota of yeshivah students. Karelitz was a true scholar, devoid of political intent or ambition. Long after his death, less scrupulous adherents, who lacked Karelitz's modesty but whose political and economic ambitions were boundless, persuaded Prime Minister Begin to abandon the quota Karelitz had negotiated. Not content with that victory, they scored another, using their muscle in the Knesset to obtain for yeshivah students a taxpayer-funded stipend in addition to the military exemption they already enjoyed. This in turn has contributed to the burgeoning of a class of Jews within Israel who are totally welfare-dependent.

In February, the High Court struck down as unconstitutional - because it was discriminatory - the legal framework (the Tal Law) protecting this exemption. Last week, the Plesner committee, established by Prime Minister Netanyahu to draft a new law governing conscription, broke up in disarray. Meanwhile, Charedi leaders have been screaming that they will never agree to the conscription of their devoted pupils - upon whose yeshivah fees they of course depend for their stipends.

This is a nettle that must be grasped. Kadima head Shaul Mofaz is right to insist that the way to grasp it is not merely to bring the Charedi exemption to an end but to apply severe financial penalties to those who choose to defy the draft. The numbers to whom such penalties would apply might not be as great as the doomsayers threaten.

In her recent study of Israeli Charedi culture, Hebrew University sociologist Dr Nurit Stadler offers a fascinating analysis of Charedi attitudes to IDF service. Many Charedim apparently agree that they are not suited to yeshivah life, and might actually welcome conscription as a means of fulfilling their desire for "a more inclusive citizenship and a less lofty and more active religiosity".

A law extending conscription to Charedim is long overdue. Its passage requires a degree of statesmanship. Similarly, when it makes a final determination on Ariel's application on July 17 the full CHE needs to put aside self-interest in favour of the needs of the nation.

Last updated: 11:45am, July 16 2012