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Farewell to the People’s Army

Two recent articles from Israel Pulse/ Al Monitor on the change of law on drafting the Ultra-Orthodox is followed by an overview on the state of the IDF from Haaretz.

Israeli border policemen scuffle with ultra-Orthodox protesters during a demonstration in Jerusalem February 6, 2014. Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel blocked highways in protest at a government decision to cut funds to seminary students who avoid military service. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

Ultra-Orthodox draft law diffuses Israel’s ‘existential threat’

By Ben Caspit /trans.Danny, Israel Pulse, Al Monitor
February 21, 2014

When the Jewish state was established in 1948, founder and first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion promised to allow some 400 rabbinical college students of military age to continue studying the Torah without interruption. They would not be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) like any other young Israeli, and they would not have the same normal obligations incumbent upon other citizens of the young state, which fought for its survival from the moment it was born.

At the time, Ben-Gurion had many other problems to deal with, including five Arab countries that attacked the Jewish state to destroy it. His historic promise wasn’t considered to be a genuine problem. No one imagined that within a generation or two, the number of people studying the Torah would double, triple, quadruple, and continue to soar at an exponential rate. Today, each class of young ultra-Orthodox Jews of draft age, numbers 15,000 rabbinical college students. Since military service in the IDF lasts three years (for men), the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who should be serving in the IDF at any given moment is around 45,000. The reality is that the number of those actually serving is between 1,500 and 2,000, who are taking part in several fascinating tracks created especially for them in the Intelligence Corps and the Air Force.

Some 66 years after the founding of the state, the ultra-Orthodox have become a strategic threat to Israel, the country in which they live. Once a negligible population, numbering in the tens of thousands, they now make up about 1 million people. The Grade One class (6-year-olds) in the Israeli education system now consists of 50% ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab Israelis, the two minorities that are about to become a majority. The population that serves, contributes and joins the workforce in Israel is losing its weight among the population. Once, secular Jews were a majority. Today, they are a minority.

Fortunately, the people in the knitted yarmulkes, affiliated with religious Zionism, serve and contribute disproportionately to their percentage of the population, but that doesn’t change the numbers or alleviate the concern. Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews rarely enlist to the army, resulting in a situation in which half of the country’s young people are not counted by the army in any given recruitment cycle. The IDF was once known as the “People’s Army.” Now it is “Half the People’s Army.” In another decade or two, it won’t even be that. Failing to serve was once a rarity. Today, it is a tangible and significant threat.

The rate of natural increase among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population is enormous. Today in Israel, elderly Jews with something like 100 children and grandchildren are fairly easy to find. The calculation is simple: They have about 10 children, and each of those children has about 10 children of his own. This is not some rare spectacle. It is the reality. Israel is a fertile country with a high birthrate. The problem is dealing with a reality in which the most fertile sector does not bear its share of the security burden and whose rate of participation in the workforce is much lower than necessary. According to senior economists and authorities in Israeli academia, this is a ticking time bomb that constitutes an “existential threat” to the Jewish state’s welfare.

There has been a change over the past few years. The pace isn’t fast enough yet, but the direction is clear. The rate of participation in the workforce among ultra-Orthodox men jumped from something like 35% to around 45%. That is still very low. Ultra-Orthodox men still prefer to study the Torah in the various rabbinical colleges and rely on the work of their wives, who earn the minimum wage and at the same time raise their many children. Added to this meager salary are the stipends paid to them from the state coffers and various charity and mutual aid organizations, which are especially well-developed in the ultra-Orthodox community. A large segment of the ultra-Orthodox population in Israel lives in dire poverty, but their motivation to extricate themselves from it is not particularly high. The real goal in life, among the ultra-Orthodox, is not to earn a fortune, amass material possessions and maintain a high standard of living. It is to reach achievements in the study of the Torah.

Despite all of the above, change is certainly underway. The ultra-Orthodox in Israel are starting to open up to the outside world. They are feeling their way, reluctantly and fearfully, into the 21st century.

On Feb. 19, a special Knesset committee approved the new “Sharing the Burden Law,” which is supposed to correct the severe distortion concerning the division of IDF service between segments of the population, and which bears clear implications on participation in the workforce. Finance Minister and Chairman of the Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid made a campaign promise to ensure that young ultra-Orthodox men receive the same treatment as their secular brothers and are drafted into the army just like them. Lapid failed to keep this promise, because it would be impossible to implement without getting into a Ukraine-style civil war.

What did pass is a proportional and gradual law that increases the rate of ultra-Orthodox Jews drafted into the IDF in stages and sets a target date after which they would be faced with the same criminal sanctions imposed on any other young Israeli who avoided military service, unless the community met the recruitment rates allotted to it from the beginning.

It sounds complicated because it is complicated. It has already been mentioned that this will not lead to any sharing of the burden. When it reaches its optimal level, the law will result in about one-third of those young people of recruitment age being drafted into the IDF or some alternative national service. It is far from the numbers of people recruited in the other sectors, but it is not a bad beginning.

The law’s greatest impact is expected to be economic and social. Ultra-Orthodox Jews who serve in the military go on to join the workforce in impressive numbers. Until the current law was passed, young ultra-Orthodox Jews were “imprisoned” in their rabbinical colleges and unable to join the workforce at all. They received a deferral and exemption from serving in the IDF because they were studying in a rabbinical college. Anyone who considered leaving was drafted into the army. Now tens of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox men who are trapped in this bizarre situation will receive an all-inclusive exemption and join the workforce at once. At the same time, the next generation of young people who enter this circle will not be forced to choose between military service and sitting in a rabbinical college (in a yeshiva, a ”sitting” in Hebrew). The system will be more attentive to them and provide these young people with the more organized options of either studying the Torah, serving in the IDF or entering the workforce.

Experts in Israel hope that this law will help the ultra-Orthodox overcome the obstacles that still separate them from the modern world. The law has the potential and offers the hope that it will indeed provide the goods. At the same time, however, it must not be forgotten: The main obstacle keeping the ultra-Orthodox from military service and the workforce is an emotional obstacle. They are worried that exposure to the modern world will cause many of them to abandon Orthodoxy. As far as they are concerned, studying the Torah 20 hours a day is even more important to the Jewish people than serving in the military or contributing to the economy. It will take time before they are convinced that the two things do not contradict one another. What has happened meanwhile is that the ultra-Orthodox have realized, for the very first time, that the current situation can’t go on like this forever.

Lapid wins superficial victory over drafting ultra-Orthodox

By Mazal Mualem, trans. Aviva Arad, Israel Pulse/Al Monitor
February 22, 2014

The day after Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s declaration of victory on Feb. 20, in the battle over the burden-sharing law, the ultra-Orthodox leadership also rushed to play its part in the play produced by the Yesh Atid chairman. The cries of pain of the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the harsh threats of revenge on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from Knesset member Meir Porush of Yahadut HaTorah, published in Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, are no more than crocodile tears.

The just passed burden-sharing law is a major victory for the ultra-Orthodox, whose lives won’t change — in contrast to the misrepresentation by the leaders of Yesh Atid. But the representatives of the ultra-Orthodox sector have no interest in raising doubts as to Lapid’s supposed victory, or claim that they succeeded in defeated the draft while sitting in the opposition. Because it doesn’t matter with what pomposity Lapid announces the correction of a historic wrong that has lasted 65 years. The truth is that Israeli citizens went to sleep with the “draft reform” and woke up with a modified Tal Law exempting the ultra-Orthodox from being drafted — that is, one with a slightly improved status quo.

In his election campaign, Lapid promised to draft every 18-year-old male. In reality, he’s assisting the continuation of mass draft dodging under cover of the law. There will be no shared burden as long as the ultra-Orthodox are excluded from the Defense Service Law — this is the situation today and that’s how it will remain.

The debates of the Plesner Committee, the committee that previously tried to advance legislation for a shared burden, blew up in July 2012, and with it the short partnership of Netanyahu and the Kadima party, headed by former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. At that time, the ultra-Orthodox conducted an all-out war over two issues raised in the discussion: the age of the draftees and draft quotas. They wanted the age of the draftees to set as high as possible, and fought for predetermined draft quotas rather than a general draft. Netanyahu preferred to keep his pact with the ultra-Orthodox and disbanded the committee. The ultra-Orthodox achieved these two goals with the new law: They will be able to receive a deferment of service and study in a rabbinical college until age 26, and in exchange, they’ll have to meet the draft quotas determined by the government.

The quota for 2017 will be 5,200 young ultra-Orthodox people — a seemingly historic achievement considering that in every recruitment cycle, there are an average of 8,000 ultra-Orthodox candidates for army service. But beneath Lapid’s picture of victory hides the fact that the draftees included in the quota don’t have to come from one recruitment cycle, but from a reserve of tens of thousands of men who have recently deferred service. As such, instead of 70% of eligible ultra-Orthodox youth in every recruitment cycle, less than 7% will be drafted.

In addition, the government will be the one to monitor the quotas and to determine the draft goals. There’s no need to mention the flexibility of government decisions and the speed in which they can be changed according to political and coalition constraints. Thus, it’s easy to understand why the main achievement heralded by Yesh Atid — the criminal penalties on ultra-Orthodox who dodge the draft — is illusory. There will not be criminal penalties just as there won’t be economic penalties, since the ultra-Orthodox could easily meet the draft targets in the framework passed into law. Even today, without Lapid’s law, about 3,500 ultra-Orthodox serve in the Israel Defense Forces, 2,000 of them drafted in the last year.

The ultra-Orthodox couldn’t dream of a friendlier law. They see Lapid talking about a historic turning point and chuckle. Quietly and cleverly, through their associates among the settler leadership, they succeeded in pressuring Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and Knesset member Ayelet Shaked of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party behind the scenes, so that they would represent ultra-Orthodox interests in the committee. Despite the temptation to celebrate the new law and herald their achievement, they understand that now is the time to show restraint and let Lapid have his 15 minutes of fame. The public’s attention will move on to another topic, and they’ll enjoy their win.

One of the senior ultra-Orthodox politicians in close contact with the chair of the committee, Shaked, agreed to speak with Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity: “We couldn’t have asked for a better law. In the war over public opinion against Lapid, we don’t really care that people would think we lost and we’re going to be drafted. That’s how they’ll get off our backs; that’s how we’ll get our peace and quiet back.” As for Porush’s claim that Netanyahu betrayed the ultra-Orthodox when he agreed to criminal penalties, the senior politician said, “What do you expect, that he’d be happy with it? We have to show that the law is bad for us.”

The threat of Porush that the ultra-Orthodox would punish Netanyahu in the presidential elections and block the Likud’s candidates he described as “part of the game. Just like in the last elections, when we threatened him that we’d endorse [then-Labor chair] Shelly Yachimovich because of the economic sanctions. I see ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset regularly vilify Bibi [Netanyahu] ever since we didn’t enter the government, but the moment they get called to a meeting with him, they run into his arms and boast that just now, they sat with the prime minister.”

Lapid’s achievement amounts only to the marketing that gave the burden-sharing law a sense of being a historic step forward. The circle surrounding the chairman of Yesh Atid compares him to no less than late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who withstood intense pressure on the right on the eve of the passing of the Gaza Disengagement Plan in the Knesset. On the same night in October 2004, Sharon gave an exemplary leadership performance in the Knesset, as he sat cool-headed in the assembly hall, didn’t blink and didn’t give in, despite the fear that he would lose his office. Where exactly is the similarity in these two events? Only the Yesh Atid people can say.

Lapid, maybe more than any other politician, has the unique talent of distilling a complex issue into an exact and winning sentence, and to choose the image of victory that would serve his agenda most precisely. That’s how it was when the government was established: He wished to carve into the collective memory the image of a smaller coalition without the ultra-Orthodox, but on the way he gave up spots on all of the most important committees and other positions of power in the Knesset. That’s how it was this time, as well: He marked his goal as the criminal penalties and threatened to leave the government if they weren’t included, and conceded on essential points in the law.

In the battle over secular consciousness, Lapid won. But very soon, when the fog of war lifts, the facts will become clear. It could be that in several years, when Israeli citizens discover that most of the ultra-Orthodox continue to receive an exemption under the law, that no one goes to jail or is fined, another case will come before the Supreme Court that would shake the political system. But then, after the passing of Yesh Atid’s law, the situation will be much more complicated. That’s what a historic missed opportunity looks like.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid campaigning last year on the promise to end the exemption of the ultra-orthodox from military service. He has claimed victory, but failed to notice the other factors which are ending the IDF’s idealised image of a popular and effective fighting force.

The Israeli army’s manpower shortage goes beyond women and Haredim

While lawmakers focus on ‘equally sharing the burden,’ they’re overlooking the issues of training, motivation and falling draft numbers.

By Amos Harel, Haaretz
February 13, 2014

As a Knesset committee worked feverishly on Tuesday to finalize a new conscription law, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz attended a graduation ceremony at the Bahad 1 officers’ training base. In their addresses to the newly minted officers, neither touched on the specifics of the new law. Netanyahu said only that he wanted to see “all segments of our society more equally represented” in the army. Gantz urged all young people “to rise up and serve their homeland,” adding that while the public calls the debate over army service “a debate over equality in [bearing] the burden, we call it ‘the right to serve’ – and we should fight for this right.”

The debate taking place in the Shaked Committee that same day was of necessity far more detailed. It revolved around a dispute that arose, somewhat surprisingly, at the last minute, as the committee was in the midst of voting on the bill. The dispute pits a majority of the committee against the defense establishment over the issue of whether to shorten compulsory service for men.

On Monday, as planned, the committee approved a proposal to shorten this service from 36 to 32 months. But it promptly opened a new front against the IDF by simultaneously rejecting a proposal to lengthen compulsory service for women from 24 to 28 months. The army viewed this extension as essential to compensate, at least in part, for the manpower loss caused by curtailing service for men.

With the encouragement of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, the IDF is therefore digging in its heels on the issue of extending service for women.

According to both Ya’alon and Gantz, this is one of several necessary measures to compensate for the expected manpower shortfall. The others include drafting more ultra-Orthodox men and religiously observant women, two communities that largely don’t serve today; ending the practice of loaning soldiers to the police and the Shin Bet security service; and extending the army component of the five-year hesder program, which combines Torah study with army service, from 16 to 24 months. Currently, however, it looks as if almost none of these demands will be met.

What the army hasn’t mentioned during this debate is that it already agreed with the Finance Ministry on a compensation package to help it cope with the expected manpower shortage. Under this agreement, the IDF will get an extra 550 million shekels a year ($156 million), a sum based on the conclusions of the 2006 Brodet Committee, which recommended cutting compulsory service for men. This money is meant to enable the army to hire combat soldiers and technical specialists as career soldiers on short-term contracts, to fill the gaps created by shorter compulsory service. From the treasury’s standpoint, this is a worthwhile deal, because the economy as a whole will benefit from having most male soldiers enter the workforce four months sooner.

Nevertheless, despite the stormy exchanges between Ya’alon and Shaked Committee members on Tuesday, it seems the spat over extending women’s service will ultimately be resolved, because both sides are interested in resolving it.

The Yesh Atid party, which was the mover and shaker behind the new law, is much more interested in the section of the bill to be discussed next week – drafting all 18-year-olds as of July 2017, or in other words, imposing criminal sanctions on Haredi draft-dodgers if the quotas for Haredi service set in the bill haven’t been met by then.

This, essentially, is the key question surrounding the new law: How many Haredim will be serving in the IDF in another three and a half years? Yesh Atid hopes the number will be significantly larger than it is today. The Haredim apparently believe that by then, a new coalition will be in power and it will possible to soften the evil decree, either by amending the law or by turning a blind eye to its nonenforcement.

Nevertheless, the IDF’s manpower problems weren’t created by the Shaked Committee’s decision not to lengthen service for women. These problems include a decline in the percentage of 18-year-olds being drafted at all, and in their motivation to serve in combat units; a shortage of people appropriate for certain essential positions among soldiers doing their compulsory service; and insufficient training of the reserves. And all of them are the result of steady erosion that has been going on for at least a decade.

Gantz, who will begin his fourth and final year as chief of staff on Friday, has so far enjoyed a much quieter tenure than his predecessors, with no major military operations. If this continues to be true in the coming year as well, his term will instead be overshadowed by the worsening crisis in the army’s manpower situation.

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