Monday night’s unprecedented meeting of the three rabbinic councils of the mainstream haredi movements Degel Hatorah, Agudat Yisrael, and Shas was grand theater on a grand scale.
Thirty-four of the most senior and influential rabbis in the haredi world gathered to deliberate, debate, pray, and weigh their reaction to the government bill to draft haredi men into the army.
The conclave took place in front of the cameras and microphones of both the haredi media and the broader Israeli press.
The declaration issued by the joint council was a statement befitting the drama of the situation.
The rabbis called on all yeshiva students to refuse conscription, announced a mass demonstration would be staged to protest against the legislation, and even threatened to instruct haredi boys not to present themselves to IDF enlistment offices for initial processing, which could generate serious social unrest.
The statement issued by the council was fierce and dramatic and could lead to significant reversals in the successes reached so far in drafting haredim into either military or national service.
Regardless of what any new law stipulates, without even a modicum of cooperation from the community and its rabbinic leadership nothing can be achieved whatsoever.
The current government bill on conscription stipulates a legal obligation on haredi yeshiva students to leave their yeshivot in 2018, at least for a three-year period, and perform national service if government targets are not met.
There already existed a concern that the mass exemptions provided by the law in the interim period leading up to 2018 would decrease the incentive to serve, thereby endangering the conscription targets.
But instructions from the rabbinic leadership to refuse conscription and not to cooperate could torpedo entirely any effort to get haredim into national service. Anyone who has talked to yeshiva students on the issue knows that their simple answer to the question of conscription is that they will do what their rabbis tell them.
As well as being a serious show of strength, what took place on Monday night was also a form of showmanship, part of a theatrical production which will likely reach even greater levels of melodrama and bitterness in the near future, and one which the haredi leadership has been forced into.
The pressure is coming from two directions.
On the one hand is the government bill, largely authored and promoted by Yesh Atid, mandating possible imprisonment for a yeshiva student who refuses to report for military service.
On the symbolic and ideological level, this is a step the haredi leadership cannot ignore. Torah study is seen as the highest calling and ultimate vocation, an act which spiritually sustains the world and gives merit to the Jewish people and its right to divine protection.
The right to decide who may or may not undertake this mission is not and cannot be in the hands of temporal, political figures. Indeed, it is not even in the hands of the rabbis because, as the haredi refrain goes, whoever wants to learn Torah must be allowed to do so.
For this reason, the haredi leadership cannot ignore the government’s “provocation,” which threatens to draft yeshiva students out of the study halls under penalty of being labeled a criminal and incarcerated. The rabbis cannot allow the secular state to think that “harming” those who study Torah can be allowed to pass without a furious response.
Similarly, the mainstream leadership – particularly in the Ashkenazi non-hassidic world which largely determines the agenda and mood of the entire haredi sector – has been under intense pressure from hard-liners in their midst.
In principle, this is Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and his Bnei Torah political faction. His longstanding opposition to any compromise or cooperation with the state regarding conscription, based on his claim that the only purpose of the endeavor is to harm the haredi community, is now enhancing his credibility.
His faction is growing in popular support, has won several municipal council seats in haredi cities in the recent elections and is a force that now cannot be ignored.
How could Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman – the leader of the mainstream haredi world who Auerbach is competing with – possibly ignore or sweep under the carpet the perceived attack on the haredi world that the government’s conscription bill constitutes? It has been Auerbach’s policy since the Tal Law expired in 2012 to instruct yeshiva deans loyal to him to tell their students not even to present themselves at IDF enlistment offices when called to do so for preliminary processing.
According to current Israeli law, someone failing to present oneself for this process is deemed a deserter and liable to arrest by the military police. Several yeshiva students associated with rabbis and yeshivas loyal to Auerbach have already been arrested in recent months for refusing to go to the enlistment office when so ordered.
Last night’s declaration issued by the rabbinical councils is a direct result of these twin pressures. Auerbach has set the agenda of the haredi community by tacking hard to the right, but the government has no less helped bulwark and strengthen this position.
However, another, less confrontational, scenario is also possible, in which rabbis will not follow through with their threat to prohibit haredim from reporting to the enlistment offices altogether.
Several haredi MKs have actually quietly expressed satisfaction with the terms of the bill due to several clauses which will reduce its efficacy in getting haredi men to serve.
One of the most problematic is the provision that a haredi man as old as 26 will be included in the government targets.
The army has little use for soldiers age 24 and above, and so it is likely such men would be recommended for civilian service, once again leaving the burden of serious military service on others.
In addition, the fact that conscripts for government targets can be drawn from multiple annual cohorts means that the youth on the periphery of haredi society – the rebels and discontents – will be the ones who are sent off to national service, while the notion of contributing to Israeli society as a positive value will continue to be denigrated in haredi society.
So although the anger about criminal sanctions is real, the drama and threats might possibly be for show. It is possible that the haredi leadership will not follow through on the threat to prohibit reporting for initial processing, simply because the bill has other serious defects that will ensure that haredi men are still not required to do significant service.
Either way, the outcome is not likely to be good for the state. Mass disobedience to call-up orders would pose a serious social problem.
But enacting the law as it is with the possibility that it will not lead to a significant increase in haredi men performing military service, and the concomitant lack of societal change regarding the idea of national service, could be equally problematic.