This note is about smoke and mirrors. In other words, it''s an effort to understand what may really be happening in the fog of Israeli politics.
It''s not something that I usually do. I generally scoff at stories of conspiracy, hidden meanings, the secret Torah within the Torah, gematria or other "keys" said to unlock messages not apparent to a simple reading of text. Even metaphors make me nervous. I am most comfortable with simple meanings.
However, the issue of drafting the Haredim lends itself--may even require--something else.
The most recent election campaign featured the demand to equalize the burdens of serving the state. Some of that dealt with unfair burdens on the middle class and the cost of housing for young couples, but most of it concerned the exemptions from compulsory military service providing to ultra-Orthodox men.
The issue has been around since the founding of the state, but came to the latest political campaign via a Supreme Court decision that faulted existing arrangements for imposing unequal burdens on Israelis who did not get the exemptions, then a fumbled attempt by the previous government to enact a reform.
The most obvious element of smoke and mirrors, or what you are seeing is really something else, is that the core issue is not military service. All the signs are that the IDF does not want to deal with the Haredim. Their lack of education in mathematics, science, history, and social studies makes them unfit for the demands of a modern army. Their lack of physical education renders many of them unfit for recruitment. Demands for food even more kosher than that available to other soldiers and their resistance to serving alongside of women or perhaps even within sight of women would add to the administrative burdens of the army.
What appears to be the real issue in the debate is the need to get Haredi men out of the religious academies (yeshivot) and into legal work, where they would pay taxes, be no longer dependent on welfare payments, support their families and perhaps limit the size of the families they are required to support. Under existing arrangements, the men remain in the academies in order to avoid the draft, receive family support for themselves and their children, avoid legal work under penalty of losing their benefits, and most likely work in the gray area where they receive cash not reported to the tax authorities.
Now the government has provided initial approval to what those supporting it are applauding it as a great reform.
The measure has come from the first coalition in years without ultra-Orthodox parties. It has been roundly criticized by Haredi leaders as anti-Semitic and equivalent to the harshest edicts imposed on the Jews by history''s cruelest tyrants. It is ridiculed by secular commentators for falling far short of equal burdens. The attorney general has expressed his concern that he might not be able to defend it against a challenge in the Supreme Court.
The new measure, as well as the existing arrangement, reflects how Israeli society and politics respects the sensitivities of different populations. The country does not fit into simplistic modes of equality, thought by simpletons to be essential for democracy. No society does. Religious organizations do not pay taxes on their huge and opulent buildings located on prime real estate in the US or many other democracies. Different treatments of men and women, children, the old and handicapped are common, even while some of them (with respect to men and women) are lessening and some (with respect to the handicapped) may becoming more pronounced here and elsewhere.
Among the differences having to do with military service in Israel are blanket exemptions provided to Jewish women who are religious (i.e., Orthodox), ultra-Orthodox men, Arabs, and the women of Druze and Circassian communities whose men are subject to the draft.
Since the Supreme Court made an issue of inequality and conscription, some politicians have raised the issue of drafting Arabs. This usually comes along with the option of community service, most likely with the Arab community. However, the Arab issue has been dormant. Some say it is necessary to deal first with the Haredim. Some say that drafting Arabs to fight against Arabs--or even demanding that they serve the Jewish state by doing social service in Arab communities--remains beyond what is feasible.
The following elements in the current proposal illustrate how it falls short of an equality of burdens.
- The measure postpones until 2017 any demand that Haredim be drafted.
- It provides an immediate blanket exemption to yeshiva students 22 years of age and older. (This is the most progressive element in the measure, insofar as it releases those men from the obligation to remain in the academies under penalty of being drafted if they leave. Reformers hope that the provision will spur the Haredim to join the legal and tax paying workforce.)
- Haredi men will be required to comply with IDF recruitment procedures, but will have the option of doing social service instead of military service.
- Beginning in 2017, Haredi men will be subject to conscription only at the age of 21, rather than 18 as applied to other Israelis. By that age they may be eligible for special treatment by virtue of being married and with children. Moreover, 1,800 Haredi per year will be defined as exceptional Torah students and will be exempt.
- Those serving in the military will serve for a bit less than one and one-half years, as opposed to the nearly three years served by other men.
- The Haredim will be in separate units, provided with several hours each day for studying Torah, no work on Sabbath and religious holidays, without contact with female soldiers, and with glatt kosher food.
- Included in the measure are financial penalties for individual Haredim who do not comply with its requirements, and for yeshivots where a certain percentage of the students refuse to serve
- Added as sweeteners to the measure is one feature to extend the length of service for Orthodox men who combine religious study with a limited period of military service, to lengthen the limited period of service demanded of non-Orthodox Jewish women, and to shorten somewhat the service demanded of regular recruits.
Defenders of the measure explain its special provisions as recognizing the sensitivities of the Haredi population, and working to ease them into Israel''s mainstream. Haredi activists curse the proposal as cruel, and threaten mass lack of compliance. There are reports of individual Haredim, who have chosen to leave the yeshivot and serve in the military, who have been shunned by their families and attacked on the streets of Haredi neighborhoods.
Commentators ridicule the measure as wee small steps toward equality. Among their points is that anything can happen until 2017, including the likelihood that an ultra-Orthodox party will join a subsequent coalition at the price of scuttling any significant reform. Civil rights activists are likely to challenge the measure as soon as it passes through subsequent approvals by the government and Knesset. Or to challenge the lack of an enactment if passage is delayed.
My own tentative assessment is that the Supreme Court is crucial to whatever process will continue. My tentative venture into conspiracy analysis is that several members of the government voting for the proposal, and praising it to the media, have done so with the expectation that the Court will do what politicians are unable to do, and demand that it be more equal. The lack of ultra-Orthodox parties in the government is a phenomenon likely to be passing and short lived. The major parties currently in the coalition want to avoid closing the door to a future coalition that they may require if they want to lead a government. With this in mind, they have passed a measure that is obviously flawed, in the expectation that it will be fixed by a Court having a limited concern for government coalitions.
There are some problems with this assessment. At times the Court--like its American equivalent--stays out of especially sensitive issues on the principle that they are matters for public dispute and political decision. Also to be faced is the issue of implementation. Some of the Haredi rabbis are unrestrained in their condemnation of any effort to draft the Haredim, or to entice them to leave the academies. No one should dare predict how forceful Israeli authorities will be to draft the Haredim, insist on those avoiding the military actually do social service, or reduce financial support to Haredi families and academies.
Among the questions that are appropriate to ask, but impossible to answer with any certainty on account of the smoke and mirrors involved in this political process--
- Are the arrangements in this measure as "equal" as it is feasible to demand of the Haredim, given the extensive opposition to any military service or social service that will require their young men to leave the academies and be tempted with a non-Haredi life style then or later while in the workforce?
- Are the present arrangements perhaps the first step in an incremental process toward greater equality of burdens?
- Will the present arrangements work, or simply be the beginning of a scenario marked by extensive resistance by the Haredim, social protests by the Haredim and the anti-Haredim that threaten the integrity of Israeli society?
No one should also expect the bloodshed currently apparent elsewhere in the Middle East. Israel''s rituals of religious conflict include loud and troublesome demonstrations, but a minimum of bodily harm. At some point, we can expect the rabbis to warn of previous conflicts among the Jews, most notably the civil war that eased the entry of Roman soldiers to Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, and to urge a peaceful acceptance of a deal hammered out between religious and secular office holders.
We can''t be certain of the near future, insofar as this conflict may be more severe than previous commotions concerned with the Sabbath, graves, unsightly advertisements, or the sale of pork.