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 him. 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 point.
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 attention.
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 stages.
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 welfare.
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.”
Unless the 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 workforce. 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.
A minority 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.
The 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 them.
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.
This will 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 firstname.lastname@example.org