Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s impulsive dissolution of the Plesner
Committee dealing with the haredi draft was a blunder from which he and the
Likud faction are now trying to extricate themselves. If this fails, it will
lead to his political undoing.
Despite achieving the broadest national
consensus on foreign policy issues since the great divide over the Oslo accords,
the rage that will be directed against him if he capitulates to the haredi
(ultra-Orthodox) rabbis over the conscription crisis will overwhelm
Israelis are fed up with a situation in which a growing sector of
the community exploits its excessive political leverage to extort favors
exclusively benefiting its one-dimensional constituency. The new focus on the
longstanding draft exemption of haredim has brought this to boiling
The recent Tel Aviv demonstration reflects the broad support for
this issue among disparate sections of the community. It is unprecedented to
witness representatives from throughout the entire social spectrum – the
far-left New Israel Fund, the Israeli Reform Movement, the Kibbutz Movement, the
National Student Union, the hardline Zionist Im Tirzu, secular and national
religious bodies – all uniting under the one banner. If Netanyahu allies with
haredim against all these forces, his days as a political leader will be
numbered. And rightly so.
Most Israelis demand that haredim be drafted
like all other citizens with no special considerations other than ensuring that
their religious observance is respected. But the reality is that the IDF could
not absorb large numbers of haredim overnight and integrating youngsters with
such a different lifestyle is enormously complex and requires special
The differing backgrounds of haredim must be factored in. For
example, a large proportion of Shas supporters – Sephardi haredim who do not
blindly replicate the practices of the Lithuanian haredim, and many of whom
already serve in the IDF, are more easily integrated. The Lithuanian and
hassidic groups pose far greater problems. Anyone who has visited the current
Israel Museum exhibition of hassidim will readily appreciate the awesome
challenge that drafting some of these youngsters will pose.
It is a
tribute to the Plesner Committee that it appreciated the complexities involved
in engaging haredim who live such closed lives and proposed introducing changes
gradually, compassionately, and employing maximum flexibility in the initial
Its recommendations included exempting 1,500 outstanding Torah
scholars per annum, providing national service for those not suitable for the
military (as long as this is directed toward genuine community service and not
transformed into a new pipeline to channel funds to exclusively haredi
enterprises), and suggested deferring service for up to five years. It also
suggested that those not serving be subjected to monetary fines and reduced
social welfare payments.
The imperative to change the system extends far
beyond the need to defuse the rage at 60,000 haredi draft evaders – many of whom
are not even genuinely committed to full-time Torah studies. The fundamental
issue to be resolved is the ever-growing number of youngsters driven by
anti-Zionist rabbis into believing that they should engage in a lifetime of
full-time Torah study, reject earning a livelihood and subsist on state
DEGRADING THE concept of earning a livelihood is unprecedented
in Jewish tradition. The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) quotes Rabban
Gamliel saying, “Torah study is good with a worldly occupation, because the
exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin. All Torah without work will
ultimately result in desolation and will cause sinfulness.”
current perversion of the Jewish work ethic is reversed, the inevitable outcome
will be that the hordes of haredi youngsters, already representing an
impoverished underclass, will soon undermine the entire economy and cohesiveness
of the state.
In this context, the draft is crucial. Once these
youngsters become engaged in the IDF or national service, most of them will
acquire rudimentary skills enabling them to ultimately join the
Of course, to create a national service which will provide
them with vocational skills and not merely employ them doing menial jobs, will
in itself represent a major challenge for the government.
In the long
term, the haredi rabbis with any understanding of the real world would grasp the
opportunity to move forward in a constructive and collaborative manner. The
hardline opposition stems from the extreme Lithuanian anti-Zionists – especially
the Eda Haredit – many of whom harbor hostile attitudes toward the state which
nevertheless supports and subsidizes their yeshivot. They are not even willing
to recite prayers in their synagogues for soldiers defending them. On the other
hand, Shas supporters are unlikely to go to the barricades over this issue as
many of them share strong national sentiments.
The principal concern of
the rabbis is that their students will be exposed to the world at large and that
they will lose control over them. Instead of recognizing that these reforms are
inevitable and that they will ultimately derive benefit by overcoming their
existing grinding poverty, they utterly reject such proposals, creating further
social polarization. They are not even willing to consider national service in
hospitals, schools and other welfare institutions.
The insularity of
their leadership is reminiscent of their predecessors on the eve of the
Holocaust who urged their followers to remain in Europe and bitterly opposed
emigration to Palestine as being counter to the Divine will.
of the more astute elements in the haredi world read the writing on the wall.
They have already initiated projects to provide vocational training to enable
haredim to become gainfully employed.
Some are even seeking to
collaborate with the government to find ways of minimizing the negative impact
of these changes. In addition, haredi voluntary participation in the IDF, while
only comprising a small percentage, has nevertheless significantly increased
over the past few years.
As an economist and a shrewd politician, Prime
Minister Netanyahu is aware of the urgent need to institute reforms to engage
haredim in the Israeli workforce. His reluctance to sever the longstanding
political nexus with haredim is understandable, but the time is long overdue to
break the stranglehold and excessive leverage of the haredi parties.
unity government that Netanyahu formed with Kadima provides him with an historic
opportunity to move forward and belatedly deal with these issues which generate
so much rage throughout the nation.
He is also aware that despite their
threats, to where can the haredi parties turn? To Mofaz and Kadima who imposed
the change? To Yisrael Beytenu, who regard the reforms as being insufficient? Or
to Shelly Yechimovich of Labor? And when these reforms are implemented, the
excessive leverage of the one-dimensional ultra-Orthodox parties will have
become substantially eroded.
I am confident that over the next few weeks
– in the interests of the nation as well as political expediency – Netanyahu
will endorse a system which will lead to the gradual recruitment of haredim into
the army and workforce. In the long term, this will gain them the respect of the
nation and enhance their own self-esteem.
Ironically, in the course of
time, most haredim will probably even appreciate what he has done for
It will also represent a turning point in which the power of
religious zealots is reversed, and a narrowing of the polarization between
religious and secular elements.
Instead of being alienated by religious
extremism, Israelis will be drawn closer to the intrinsic beauty of Jewish
tradition and heritage by example rather than coercion.
ultimately enshrine Netanyahu’s political legacy as an Israeli leader who,
albeit under duress, did ultimately oversee changes which unified the
nation.The writer’s website can be viewed at
www.wordfromjerusalem.com. He may be contacted at