The Plesner Committee for equalization of the burden of national service, which
is to publish its recommendations today, succumbed neither to populism nor
militancy. On the contrary, it has wisely constructed a calibrated and
compassionate path towards greater haredi (ultra- Orthodox) participation in the
Israeli workforce and military. It is tragedy that the committee’s proposals
already seem to have fallen victim to political machinations and
Tasked with finding alternatives to the Tal Law, the committee
headed by MK Yohanan Plesner is recommending a carrot and stick approach to
regulation of haredi service in the IDF. In deference to haredi values, the
Plesner guidelines would allow all haredim to defer army service at age 18, and
set no limit on their numbers. It would further exempt some “prodigious” yeshiva
students from all service permanently.
At age 22 or 23, when most haredi
men are married with kids, they would have to serve for a (less-than-usual)
period of civil or military service, and be subject to communal, institutional
and, yes, personal financial sanctions too, if they fail to enter
Critics have accused the Plesner Committee of launching a holy
war on the haredim. Not at all! Plesner understood that to demand something
drastic, like the flat-out draft of all 18 year old haredi boys, was simply
unrealistic and would be the wrong approach to bridging the gap between
mainstream Israeli society and its haredi brethren.
committee understood that the ultra-Orthodox are not about to abandon their
unique lifestyle and beliefs simply because a Knesset majority says
The committee – which included thoughtful and judicious scholars like
religious law professors Yedidia Stern and Yaffa Zilbershats, who cannot be
accused of imperviousness to Torah values – recognized that army service cannot
be rammed down the haredi throat. It rejected calls to criminalize an entire
segment of Israeli Jewry (one-third of all kids in kindergarten are haredi!) for
refusing to don a uniform.
Implicit but essential to understanding the
Plesner Committee recommendations is the understanding that the greatest problem
we have with the haredi world, and its greatest predicament within itself, is
not draft dodging. It is the haredi failure to prepare its young men and women
for a productive working role in society.
As a result, the ultra-Orthodox
world suffers from dreadful poverty (half of the 70,000 children in
ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak live under the poverty line) and other social ills –
becoming a drain on the Israeli economy and a strain on the fabric of our
society. It is also clear that the cloistering-away of haredi men in a
non-working, never-ending yeshiva environment breeds religious extremism – such
as the fanatic standards of gender separation that now plague the religious
Three things prevent the masses of haredim from leaving the
bloated yeshiva world and going out to work: the draft; the incredible,
all-embracing cocoon of government stipends and subsidies currently granted to
yeshiva families who don’t work; and the fact that most haredim do not have the
secular education necessary to obtain a decent, salaried job in the modern
So Plesner’s path seeks to help haredi society reengineer itself,
using the power of the national purse: end government subsidies for yeshiva
families who don’t do national service beyond their mid-twenties; and facilitate
the establishment of more national service, military and academic educational
frameworks appropriate for haredim.
THOSE HAREDIM with serious Torah
careers ahead of them will continue to study Torah in yeshivot of distinction
with rigorous acceptance and achievement standards. Religious society will find
ways to support them, and I support government funding for such yeshivot too –
within reasonable limits.
The rest of haredi men – the majority – will be
drawn out of hiding in unexceptional yeshivot, to their benefit and ours, and
into the real working world. Once this begins to happen, haredi men will realize
that they need to get educated in maths, sciences and the humanities; and that
service in the army is to their advantage when competing for jobs.
short, Plesner and his colleagues astutely sought a way to gently nudge haredim
do teshuva (repentance) through the shouldering of more national burden and
economic responsibility – without destroying their theological world – by making
the costs of non-service very high.
Realistically, this is the only way
haredim will enter the army and the workforce; only as a result of long-term,
deep-rooted change in the economic patterns of haredi society. Non-haredi Israel
has a responsibility to help effect this change through incentives and strong
disincentives. This is crafty, intelligent and moderate. There is nothing
militant or populist about this.
I am convinced that all Israel needs to
provide haredi society with is an escape hole the size of a needle – reasonable,
greatly reduced service opportunities that allow them to maintain their
lifestyle, and financial incentives for taking the plunge – and the trickle of
haredim currently serving in the IDF will become a deluge. Plesner could be the
thin edge of the wedge, and his path should be embraced by Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu and his governing coalition.
The writer is director of
public affairs at the Begin- Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.