Israel Update – Week of August 27, 2023
Military Service: After last week’s emotional update, I wanted to shift into a lower gear. I wanted to write about something less earth-shattering. I wanted to write about the southern city of Eilat and its tourism woes, but life in Israel does not slow down for a moment. Driving home from Eilat yesterday, I heard a story on the radio that nearly made me jump out of the car in anger. Eilat’s woes will have to wait.
Since the beginning of the year, Israel has been embroiled in protests stemming from the government’s intent to reform Israel’s judicial branch. Each Saturday night, a hundred thousand or so people protest on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street. (On Saturday night, my wife and I accidentally found ourselves in the middle of Eilat’s weekly anti-government protest. This one was attended by only about 50 people.) Because of the backlash that the judicial reform is causing, the government has limited it to reducing the court’s capability to invoke the “Reasonableness Standard,” a tool used by courts to strike down government administrative decisions that the court deems blatantly beyond the scope of what a “reasonable and responsible” authority would decide. Even with the watered-down scope of the legislation, the country is in turmoil. The issue broadly divides Israel into two camps: the elite Ashkenazic upper class “old Israel” is against the legislation while the “second Israel” – North African Sephardic Jews and the religious – supports the legislation.
A Rubicon was crossed when fifty seven high-ranking Air Force pilots threatened that they would no longer volunteer for reserve duty if the government went through with the reform. Their consciences would not allow them to fight for a country that no longer represented them. This division of the country into elites and plebians started a dumpster fire. The first public expression of the rage that the elite’s victory had engendered was a phone call to journalist Erel Segal’s radio show. A young man, who introduced himself as a senior reserve airplane technician, called in and said he was not going to report to his reserve duty either: “Without me coming on Sunday to do my reserve duty, there’s no one to start the planes. I call on my friends [the technicians]: stop doing things for the pilots. We’ll show them that the power is not in their hands, the power is in the hands of those who connect the battery […] the manual laborers who grease the plane, so it can take off. We’ll stop serving. Me? I will not report to duty on Sunday. I won’t do reserve service in a country that doesn’t respect me. […] You the pilots, you burned down the country from the inside the moment you dragged the army [into this]. You told me: you, the technician who was awake 24 hours for us, your ballot? It’s worth nothing.” Segal spent the rest of the program begging the technician to come to work on Sunday.
In Israel, even though reservists often hold high ranks and sit in critical places, like the cockpit of an F-35 jet, only about two percent of the country serve in the reserves. The effect of their refusal to serve would be problematic, but the IDF would survive. The question is what would happen if new inductees fresh out of high school were to decide to follow in the path of the reserve pilots. That question was brought to the fore yesterday. About two hundred students from the Herzliya Gymnasia High School, a high school well attended by Israeli elite intelligentsia, signed a petition vowing not to serve in the IDF because of  judicial reform and  the continued occupation of Judea and Samaria. The students wanted to sign the petition during a school-sponsored ceremony. The problem with their statement was that it was entirely illegal. According to Israeli law, military service is obligatory. When an Israeli reaches the age of 18, he is drafted for a period of 32 months, 24 months for a woman. Not serving in the IDF is against the law, plain and simple. As soon as the Ministry of Education got wind of what the school was doing, it told the school in no uncertain terms that the school should “reconsider” holding the ceremony on school grounds, which could lead to things like revoking the school’s accreditation and/or cessation of government funding: “The Ministry of Education promotes and encourages freedom of expression – but freedom of expression is not the be-all and end-all. In a state education system, not every educational institution will do what is right in its eyes, certainly when it comes to a controversial discourse in an educational institution that operates by virtue of a license according to an inspection law, from its status and the powers granted to it.” In response to the Ministry of Education’s edict, the school board, led by retired Supreme Court Justice Yoram Danziger, decided to cancel the ceremony, and in response, the principal of the school submitted his resignation. The students pleaded with the principal to reconsider his resignation. Meanwhile, the ceremony was held, albeit off of school grounds.
The Haaretz newspaper, a clarion for the Israeli elite, published in an Op-Ed on Sunday: “The freedom not to fear the government is necessary in a democratic society. The principal of Herzliya Gymnasium has no other option.” I beg to differ. The mission of a school is to prepare today’s youth to become tomorrow’s leaders. They must perform their mission within the confines of the law. The Ministry of Education was well within its rights when it threatened the funding of the Herzliya Gymnasium. In order to become a leader, a youth must understand that no person stands above the law. One can strive to change the law, but at the end of the day, we must bend our wills to it.
During a recent meeting with new IDF recruits last month, Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi acknowledged the challenges arising from widespread public debates surrounding the judicial coup legislation. He stated, "The IDF presents the greatest opportunity in this dispute because we know how to unite together with our differences. We share a common goal and all march toward it. This also sends a message to our adversaries, […] that the IDF, regardless of what's happening in Israeli society, stands as the protector of the state and serves as an exemplar of unity." Caveating reserve duty to agreement with one’s political weapon is a doomsday weapon that should be used only as a last resort. But caveating mandatory service is always illegal and the offender should be punished to the full extent of the law.
Wishing you a quiet week,