Editorial: Historic opportunity

A historic opportunity seems to be slipping from the government’s hands.

July 2, 2012 22:20
3 minute read.
Haredim and soldiers at western wall

Haredim and soldiers at western wall. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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A historic opportunity seems to be slipping from the government’s hands. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday disbanded the Keshev Committee, created to formulate a way to equalize the national burden of military and non-military service by increasing haredi and Arab enlistment.

Just weeks before the August 1 deadline set by the Supreme Court to find an alternative to the Tal Law – which allowed haredim to indefinitely defer military service – the chances of reaching a Solomonic compromise with the ultra-Orthodox community are looking increasingly slim.

However, at least one positive outcome will result from the disbanding of the Keshev Committee.

Before the committee was dismissed, several of its members seemed bent on presenting suggestions that included various means of coercion which would have only exacerbated the already tense situation. At the time of its disbanding, the committee was devoid of haredi representatives and was dominated by various members of the committee voicing militant, uncompromising positions, apparently less out of a desire to effectively increase the number of haredim – who will, like their fellow citizens, devote several years of their lives to serving the country – and more out of a calculated nod to cheap populism.

Before it is too late, our exceedingly broad coalition should reassess the situation and make a decision that will truly foster greater haredi integration. The Supreme Court ruled in February that the Tal Law was discriminatory because it allowed haredim to skirt mandatory military service while less outwardly devout citizens were forced to postpone their lives to perform military or national service.

If not for that ruling, our politicians would not have to tinker with the evolutionary process of increasingly larger numbers of yeshiva students leaving the study hall for the barracks or for national service in hospitals, volunteer organizations or rescue forces.

A sea change taking place within haredi society, combined with essential reforms that have taken place within the IDF and within the national service apparatus, have made this evolutionary process possible.

Unfortunately, for five years after the Tal Law was passed in 2002, the government essentially squandered its first real opportunity to begin slowly integrating the fast-growing haredi population into the military and, more importantly, into the labor market.

In 2007, the National Service Administration was finally created to help haredi men interested in leaving yeshiva and entering the labor market perform a year of national service. In parallel, various programs were gradually created in the IDF specializing in absorbing haredim, with all their demands for strict gender separation, special kosher food and consideration for the fact that many haredi men are married with children by the time they are ultimately drafted.

After nearly a decade, the government, IDF and National Service Administration finally began to effectively integrate haredim, but the Supreme Court was unwilling to wait any longer.

The facts are undeniable. In 2002 just 36 percent of the haredi population was employed; by 2010, 46% were. In 2005, just 300 haredi men were either serving in the IDF or doing some form of national service. By 2011, the number jumped to 4,386, 2,700 of whom were serving in the IDF.

As of May 2012, some 10,000 haredi had served in the IDF as a result of the Tal Law. True, this is just a fraction of the total number of haredi men eligible for military service, but in contrast to previous years, the change for the better is dramatic.

On the backdrop of these figures, direct government intervention should be limited. After all, the desired change is already happening. All that is needed is a little additional encouragement via, for instance, handsome economic incentives to all Israelis – haredi or not – who serve in the IDF.

Sensing, perhaps, that the Keshev Committee was headed for a direct confrontation with the haredi community, Netanyahu wisely decided to disband it before irreparable damage was done.

Nothing would be more counterproductive to the positive trends already taking place than to transform the issue of the draft into a holy war for the haredi populace.

The haredim are ready to be gradually integrated into either the IDF or National Service and go on to become productive members of society who are capable of supporting themselves and their families. It would be a shame if the government misses this chance to right a historic wrong.

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