The draft law that won cabinet approval on Sunday is being hailed in some
circles as a major step towards equality of service. Color me
The first crucial piece of evidence: Implementation of the law
will not take place for four years. I can think of three possible explanations
for the delay. One, the law is a cynical political ploy.
implementation beyond the life of the current government, Yesh Atid can take
credit in the next elections for having finally done something, without having
that claim tested against the actual impact of the law.
government is more concerned with increasing haredi participation in the
workforce than it is in haredi enlistment. By, in effect, declaring a fouryear
amnesty period, during which any yeshiva student reaching the age of 22 is free
to enter the workforce without any form of national service, the government,
with Yesh Atid in the lead, hopes to encourage young haredim to seek employment.
I was with Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman at the Rabbinical Council of America
convention last week, and he quoted estimates that 30 percent of yeshiva
students would enter training programs or begin working, were it not for fear of
the draft. (That figure would have been far too high before the advent of Yesh
Atid, and wildly unrealistic in the current climate of high religious tension.)
Three, the drafters of the bill know that the IDF has neither the desire nor the
ability to absorb large numbers of haredi recruits. That will be as true four
years from now as it is today. Already in 2011, there were more haredim seeking
to enlist than the IDF was capable of absorbing in existing
Note that these explanations do not contradict one another,
and may, in fact, reinforce one another. But they all – particularly the third –
suggest that in terms of IDF service, the impact of the new law will not be
The IDF was happy with the status quo. Three months ago, in a
speech at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen.
Benny Gantz pronounced himself satisfied with the pace of haredi integration
into the IDF. And in opposing the criminalization provisions in the new law,
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned of reversing all the progress of the last
decade in integrating haredim into the IDF.
Nahal Haredi (which is
admittedly not comprised exclusively of young men from haredi homes) has 5,000
graduates, a reserve unit, and approximately 1,000 soldiers in a combat
Authorization is in place for a second
Around 2,500 older, mostly married haredi men have graduated,
and another 1,300 are currently enlisted in the Shahar Kahol program, which
trains them for technical positions.
A second Nahal battalion likely
represents the upper limit of the IDF’s ability to accommodate haredim in
gender-segregated combat units. Women are integrated into every aspect of the
IDF. Accommodating a large influx of haredi recruits, in present circumstances,
would effectively require creating a second IDF. Ya’alon has no interest in
wasting precious army resources doing so at a time when the IDF is being forced
to cut back on both training and procurement.
The dilemma faced by the
IDF was well summarized by a writer in Haaretz a few years ago: “Either [the
haredim] would have to give up their way of life, with all that entails, or the
army would have to change itself in order to accommodate them. The first is not
democratic, and the second is not worthwhile.”
THERE WAS, however, room
for significant expansion of the Shahar frameworks. The issue of gender
segregation does not weigh as heavily on 26-year-old married men. And it is
easier to create self-contained technical units than it is segregated combat
The Shahar program was one of those win-win deals.
offered needed training for haredim, who have been flocking towards academic
degrees and vocational training. I personally know many young haredi men who
signed up for Shahar immediately after marriage.
And Shahar helped the
IDF meet crucial manpower needs, as it moves towards a smarter, hi-tech army, in
which soldiers who serve beyond their period of mandatory service are a prized
Malben/JDC, which has been heavily involved in the Shahar program
from the start, was working on plans to expand the IDF’s training programs for
haredim to younger unmarried recruits – many of whom are already working or
studying while remaining in yeshiva frameworks (for those who recognize that
they are not suited for a full-day Talmudic learning).
training programs, however, have been dealt a keen, and perhaps permanent, blow
by the current state of high tension on the haredi front. This magazine detailed
last week some of the social ostracism to which Shahar soldiers have been
subjected in recent months. Even if those behind the posters against the
“hardakim” (the derogatory term for haredi soldiers) or those who have been
personally abusive, represent a minority of haredi public opinion – as I believe
they do – they have had a large impact, in terms of both new recruits and rates
of reenlistment, which were once among the highest in the IDF.
been a dramatic drop in the willingness of soldiers in the Shahar program to
wear their uniforms off base, even at the cost of having to pay for their
The verbal assaults and ostracism will have less impact
on Nahal Haredi. Many of the Nahal recruits were already somewhat alienated from
haredi society, and will be less influenced by stares or insults. Nor do they
yet have wives or children to worry about.
But again, the Shahar
frameworks were the ones with the greatest potential for expansion, and also the
most vulnerable to social pressure. The Shahar recruits, by and large, come from
the mainstream of haredi society.
Many of them were learning in kollel
(full-time Torah study for married men) until shortly before
And until very recently, they remained comfortably integrated
into their communities.
Few married haredi men will subject themselves –
and especially not their wives and children – to repeated verbal assaults, even
if they come only from a handful. As a consequence, Shahar will likely find
itself limited to recruits from various “pockets” within the haredi world. If
the Gerrer Rebbe or the Belzer Rebbe approve the program, for instance, they can
guarantee something like full protection to Gerrer or Belz Hassidim who enlist.
And there will probably not be too much pressure on those haredi soldiers who
live in mixed secular-religious cities or in moderate haredi neighborhoods with
a high percentage of Englishspeakers, such as Har Nof in Jerusalem or Ramat Beit
LET ME be clear, I view the phenomenon of attacks on haredi
soldiers as one of the ugliest phenomena to develop in ultra-Orthodox society in
recent years, and a major setback for forms of integration into the larger
Israeli society. But we should also understand why this is taking place now:
Israeli haredi society views itself as under siege.
People under siege
act hysterically, and often the most extreme elements take over, as the Talmud
describes happening in Jerusalem during the Roman siege preceding the
destruction of the Second Temple.
Prior to the last elections, the Shahar
framework was expanding and gaining momentum, as was the move of haredim into
academic and vocational training.
While there were those who opposed
these trends, in general they were on the defensive. What changed lately is the
growing conviction of many haredim that their entire way of life is under
That feeling has been strengthened by the Finance Ministry’s
focus on cuts to haredi educational institutions, at every level, and to all
social benefits from which the haredi community benefits. (Even the incentives
for married haredi soldiers in the IDF are to be dramatically cut.) Those cuts
were accompanied by Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s rhetoric of “bringing haredim
into our worldview,” and Education Minister Shai Piron’s stress on creating a
“cultural ethos shared by everyone.”
Haredim qua haredim cannot be part
of a unitary Israeli culture, many of whose values remain anathema to their
Proposals (albeit four years hence) to force 75 percent of yeshiva
students into national service at 21, employing criminal sanctions, strike the
haredi world as designed primarily to empty the yeshivot and coerce obedience.
Such a massive national service program would be an administrative nightmare, a
huge economic burden, and do little besides take jobs away from the lowest-paid
workers. Nor would it come close to satisfying secular demands for “equality in
It is instructive to compare the reaction of the haredi
community today to the reaction to the massive cuts in child allowances by
then-finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu in 2003. Then, too, there was
widespread panic. But because the cuts were instituted as part of a
straightforward and comprehensible economic plan, without accompanying
anti-haredi rhetoric, the community adjusted. Those cuts were one of the reasons
for the quantum leap of haredim seeking academic and vocational training over
the last 10 years, for much expedited entry into the workplace, and for the
creation of Shahar.
That impact has now been significantly
As Yitzhak Lifshitz of the Shalem Center puts it, “It is very
hard to start historical processes, but easy to bring them to a halt. Too many
bulls entered the china shop.”
Rather than a new dawn, we may well be
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written
a regular column in
The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of
eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.