Israel's debate over national service could tear the country apart

Highly observant Jewish groups, known as haredim, became the fastest growing sector of the population, and the number of students exempted from military service multiplied many times over. By 1999, such students totaled more than thirty thousand. This made it more difficult for the Israeli Defense Forces to meet their manpower needs, and it created resentment in the non-haredim population nearly all of whose sons and daughters did two years of full-time military service followed by many years in the reserves. Rising state subsidies to support haredim educational institutions and social services further soured the public mood…

The stakes are very high, not only for the government, but also for Israeli society. Secular Israelis, along with religious moderates, are fed up with what they regard as special privileges the haredim have exploited their political clout to extort. But both young haredim and young Arabs may well respond to service mandates with civil disobedience. Efforts to promote civic integration could end up backfiring. Moderate, enforceable steps to expand the percentage of young Israelis performing some form of service might set in motion a virtuous circle that could lay the foundation for further advances. But it is an open question whether enough parties to the controversy would be willing to compromise. Meanwhile, the social divisions that have dogged Israel since its founding continue to fester.