Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the spiritual leader in the ultra-Orthodox world, is reportedly not opposed to a proposal for increasing haredi enlistment drafted by Professor Yedidia Stern, a former member of the Knesset’s Plesner Committee, which deliberated on the issue last summer.
Stern, the vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, has not released details of his proposal yet, but told The Jerusalem Post that its terms lie somewhere between the less stringent proposal of Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon, which was put forward before the Knesset’s summer recess, and the solution being proposed by the Yesh Atid party.
Stern has been in communication with several deans of haredi yeshivas whom have been authorized by Shteinman to look into the matter, and the principles of his plan have been presented to the rabbi. While Shteinman has reservations about the plan, he feels that its principles are acceptable.
Any proposal on the matter will likely be opposed, regardless of the actual stance of top haredi rabbis such as Shteinman.
If those rabbis are convinced that the proposals will not be damaging to the yeshiva world, then the opposition, while still vigorous, is not expected to be serious enough to make the plan unworkable.
In addition to communicating with the haredi leadership, Stern has held discussions with officials from Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Bayit Yehudi about the details of his plan and is pushing for its adoption as more workable than those of both Ya’alon and Yesh Atid.
Stern’s proposal would not impose quotas on the number of ultra-Orthodox men turning 18 who are able to gain an exemption from military service, but contains both positive and negative incentives to increase haredi enlistment that the professor believes would be effective.
The leading haredi rabbis are unwaveringly opposed to a quota system since it would automatically prevent men who wish to study in yeshiva from doing so, a point of principle for the leading rabbis that they will not abandon.
The haredi community’s political leadership has frequently said that anyone who is part of the state-funded fulltime yeshiva program but is not fulfilling his study obligations should enlist in some form of national service.
There are some 45,000 haredi yeshiva students, but it is believed that thousands of them do not comply with the mandated study obligations.
According to Stern, neither Ya’alon’s nor Yesh Atid’s proposals are workable. The Yesh Atid plan proposes that all haredi men turning 18 be given a blanket exemption from military service for five years to allow them to integrate into the work force and give the army time to prepare for the absorption of haredi recruits.
Stern believes that this will undo the progress made so far on haredi enlistment, which reached 25 percent of the annual intake in 2011, in the IDF and civilian service combined.
After the five-year interim period of the Yesh Atid plan, all 18-year-old men would be drafted to military or civilian service, excepting a quota of 400 exceptional Torah students.
Anyone refusing would be liable to the sanctions provided under the current law.
The haredi leadership is deeply opposed to the drafting of haredi men at age 18 because it considers them too vulnerable to the blandishments of non-haredi society at this age.
Currently, most ultra-Orthodox men who enlist in the IDF haredi tracks or the civilian service are in their early to mid-twenties.
Stern’s plan would likely call for haredi enlistment at age 22.
Although Shteinman appears to accept the principles of the Stern plan, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the leader of an even more conservative faction within the haredi community, is seen as being opposed.
Last week, the haredi daily Hapeles, a mouthpiece for Auerbach’s faction, wrote a lengthy critique of Stern’s plan. It quoted from interviews he gave when the Plesner Committee was in session last summer, and declared that Stern’s less confrontational and more measured approach was more dangerous than that of people advocating a coercive and mandatory universal draft without exceptions.
“Anyone who understands that isolation from the culture of sinners is the foundation of our existence will struggle with all his strength against any ‘process of integration with Israeli society,’ which is designed to break this isolation,” the paper’s editors wrote.
“Anyone who raises these crazy plans that create temptations for the uprooting of Torah students from their studies and [aim] to harm the principle of the dedication of one’s life to Torah by presenting initiatives that are designed to form quiet and delicate ways to erode the walls of the fortress of Torah, threatens the existence of the Torah no less than those antireligious people who threaten the draft by force.”