Think Again: Dawn of a new era

By delaying implementation of the new draft law beyond life of the current gov't, Yesh Atid can take credit in next elections for having done something.

July 11, 2013 14:24
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

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 skeptical.

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.

By delaying 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.

Two, the 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 frameworks.

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 great.

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 anti-terror unit.

Authorization is in place for a second battalion.

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 units.

The Shahar program was one of those win-win deals.

It 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 asset.

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).

The Shahar-type 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.

There has 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 transportation.

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 enlisting.

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 Shemesh Alef.

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 assault.

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 own.

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 the burden.”

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 mitigated.

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 going backwards.

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.

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