As most readers will already know, Israel has compulsory military service: three years for men and two years for women. In fact, it isn’t completely compulsory because it doesn’t apply to Arab Israelis (for obvious reasons) and until March 2014 it also didn’t apply to ultra-Orthodox Jews (around 10% of the Israeli population of 8 million). The latter was always difficult to defend and secular Israelis complained for a long time that the exemption was unfair, hence why the Knesset and the Israeli Supreme court now mandates that the ultra-Orthodox must serve. I say “must”, though I mean it only in a formal legal sense: one could always refuse – though not without consequence – as several brave men and women have, both in the recent war and in previous times (see the open letter in the Washington Post written by 50 soldiers who refused to serve in ‘Operation Destructive Edge‘ and analysis here, here and here). The video below shows Udi Segal, a 19 year old who refused to serve and was sentenced to 19 days in prison. The prison time, I suspect, is only the start of the punishment: Udi will be disadvantaged for years to come, not least because ‘deserter’ or ‘refusnik’ doesn’t exactly look good on the C.V.
There are other ways to get out of military service in Israel or rather there are alternatives to military service known as “national-civic” service. This involves working for one of many non-military institutes in Israel, be it another arm of the Israeli government or for a civil organisation. It is easier for women to take this route: a medical certificate or proof of disability is usually required for men and their applications are reviewed by IDF military lawyers: those caught lying are called in for questioning and sometimes punished accordingly or made to do military service.
Prompting this post is a recent controversy over the politics of what counts as legitimate national service and what does not. Last week the director of the Authority for National-Civic Service (ANCS), Sar-Shalom Jerbi, sent Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem a letter (or what B’Tselem called a ‘political pamphlet‘) stating that the ANCS would no longer permit national-civic service at B’Tselem. The letter and sentiment it expressed was clearly politically motivated: B’Tselem is one of Israel’s strongest and most vocal human rights organisation and over the past month or so they have issued several reports and press releases on the destruction and death caused by Israel in Gaza (see here). Their vital work has garnered vehement opposition in Israel. In 2012 Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermen accused the group – and several other human rights organisations – of encouraging terrorism and in the past have had their staff assaulted by both settlers and the police. More recently the B’Tselem website was hacked. This is what democracy looks like in the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ (and for a harrowing account of how some leftist journalists are treated read this).
But today’s B’Tselem newsletter brings some good news:
With the kind help of our friends at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), we acted quickly. Yesterday (Sunday) we received notice from the Deputy Attorney General that she had written to the ANCS director general, stating that his decision “indeed raises tough legal questions, regarding both the mandate to make the decision as well as the way in which the matter was decided”. The ANCS was instructed to suspend the decision, “including suspension of any action taken to cancel the service of the volunteer currently with B’Tselem”.
In other words, the cancellation was suspended.
I heard there is an opening at B’Tselem for grant-proposal writing. Udi Segal?