Advice for the Plessner Committee: Minimize confrontation

Insight concerning the thoughts and attitudes of the ultra-Orthodox community.

Haredi IDF soldiers Tal Law 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
Haredi IDF soldiers Tal Law 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
I do not offer the following thoughts to the members of the Plessner Committee in order to convince them of the wisdom of the current draft deferment for full-time yeshiva students. Life is short, and I do not fancy the role of Sisyphus. Rather my intention is to give the committee members some insight into the thinking and attitudes of the ultra- Orthodox community.
One reads frequently today of the need to more fully integrate haredim into Israeli society. It is important to clarify what is meant by “integration,” for the model of integration chosen will have a large impact on the reaction of the haredi community.
Full integration is impossible. Haredim cannot fully integrate into Israeli life without ceasing to be haredim.
The optimal model, rather, is something close to historian Jacob Katz’s description of Jewish society within the larger Christian society in Europe prior to emancipation.
Jews had extensive contact with the surrounding Christian society, particularly in the economic sphere. But, at the same time, they looked almost exclusively toward the internal Jewish society for their sense of affirmation and values.
Now, the analogy is by no means perfect. Haredi Jews view themselves as bound to non-haredi Jews by a shared national mission in a way that Jews in Europe did not feel bound to their gentile neighbors. In the short term, however, haredim feel that their greatest contribution to the welfare of their fellow Jews is to retain their distinctiveness and keep the flame of Torah burning as brightly as possible.
The greatest reason haredim fear joining the IDF is that it will be used as a melting pot for the fashioning of a uniform Israeli national culture. They have no wish for their sons to be socialized to the majority Israeli culture, which strikes them as antithetical to fundamental Torah values in many ways.
Haredi fears on this score are by no means irrational.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, often described the IDF’s role in forging a national culture as no less important than its role in national defense.
When haredim look at the national-religious community, which has long placed a very high value on military service, they see a cautionary tale. They note that on almost every axis of social identification, the majority of the national-religious community feels far closer to secular Israelis than they do their fellow observant Jews.
And in many ways, they are far closer culturally to the secular community. The dilemmas of the characters on Srugim are viewed by secular Israelis as, at worst, eccentric, whereas they would be viewed by most haredim, if they had televisions, as wholly alien.
Recent events have exacerbated haredi fears of the IDF as an instrument of socialization. The uproar over the request of a handful of national-religious soldiers to absent themselves from a women’s singing performance was widely perceived as an attempt to force nationalreligious recruits to conform to majority cultural norms.
The officers’ training candidates did not demand that the IDF only provide entertainment in accord with their religious norms, but rather that the IDF accommodate their beliefs, in a context with no conceivable implications for national defense.
Matters only grew worse when the chief rabbi of the Israel Air Force resigned over what he described as the IAF’s failure to adhere to various commitments he had made to haredi recruits in its highly successful Shahar program. Those accommodations go to the heart of the IDF’s ability to voluntarily attract married haredi men in their 20s.
The IDF would be far wiser to focus its efforts at haredi recruitment initially on the older age cohort of married men over the age of 22. By 24 or so, there is already a high degree of self-selection between those who see their future in full-time learning and those want to enter the workforce. And haredi concerns about socialization to the majority norms decline with age and marriage.
The IDF has been successful in developing programs that provide necessary training to haredim precisely in areas in which the IDF is experiencing manpower shortages.
Those units have had among the highest re-enlistment rates in the IDF, and there is room for expansion, for instance, by increasing proximity of the units to haredi population centers.
The sight of thousands of married haredim in uniform would have a filter-down effect to younger haredim, lessening the stigma of IDF service as somehow not haredi. As the IDF demonstrates its willingness and ability to accommodate the religious needs of haredim, it becomes more attractive to the not insubstantial number of younger, unmarried men from haredi homes who do not feel cut out for full-time Talmud study – and, equally important, to their parents, many of whom recognize the discipline and sense of pride the IDF instills as the best long-range hope for their sons. Most of the younger group will be drawn to combat units.
If, on the other hand, the government focuses directly on the draft cohort of 18-year-olds, through heavy financial penalties on those who do not enlist at that age or the institutions in which they learn, that will be perceived as a direct frontal attack on the existence of the haredi community. The yeshivot are the very raison d’etre of the haredi community. And anything perceived as an effort to destroy them will harden haredi resistance and halt the salutary trends of the last 10 years toward haredi academic study and entry into the workforce and the IDF.
If economic pressure is to be applied, putting an age limit on kollel stipends would be perceived as less of a direct attack on the community’s continued viability.
The most talented and dedicated will continue to learn anyhow, and institutions for the elite scholars will find adequate private funding. And the government has not exhausted its bag of possible incentives toward greater economic participation by younger married haredim – e.g., a negative income tax, reform of the tax code to remove the bias toward women working.
THE IDF will encounter little communal resistance to the expansion of haredi combat units under the aegis of Nahal Haredi, as long as they remain voluntary. And the same is true of creating national service frameworks with appropriate religious environment for youth from haredi homes,, especially if those frameworks allow for the performance of work that provides a sense of achievement and include an educational component.
But national service is no panacea to get around haredi opposition to military service for all 18-year-olds. “I understand why you [i.e., haredim] can’t serve in the army, but why can’t you do national service?” I’m frequently asked.
Truthfully, I’m not sure I understand the question.
Yeshiva students are not incapable of military service.
They would not be any less good soldiers than the average new recruit. And in any army in which the most important elite units are increasingly ones in which brains are more important that brawn, many haredi young men would be prize recruits.
Nor can the lack of physical danger in national service be the distinguishing factor. Haredim do not claim that their blood is redder or that they have some special exemption from risking their lives in defense of the Jews of Israel.
The question shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasons behind the rejection of the draft of 18- year-olds – for those reasons would not be one iota less applicable to national service. The loss of Torah study that would result from removing young men between the ages of 18 and 21 from yeshiva would be exactly the same if they were doing national service instead of serving in the military. Because haredim marry young, that hiatus would mean for many that they never pick up the solid basis in Torah learning that they will need no matter what they subsequently do in life.
Some of likeliest forms of national service – Defense Minister Ehud Barak once suggested painting garbage cans – would be a far greater disgrace to Torah, as well as an unnecessary drain on national resources. They would only create the impression that the real goal is to empty the yeshivot.
Contrary to popular opinion, haredim do not deny the necessity of an army. Most can conceive of situations in which every able-bodied yeshiva student would pick up arms. But there is no threat that could ever induce anyone involved in Torah study to pick up a paintbrush.
FAIRNESS IS an important desideratum for any country.
Its absence saps the willingness to sacrifice in pursuit of common societal goals. And unquestionably, the ideal of universal military service has been, and continues to be, an important source of social cohesion in Israel.
But fairness is not the only societal value. And its pursuit should not be conducted in a manner that makes the ultimate goals harder to achieve. The pursuit of perfection – and immediately – is the habitual enemy of the good. The political process, with its messy compromises, is well-suited to this process. Now that the new coalition has effectively neutered haredi political power, the secular majority can engage in this process without raising panic and without anger clouding judgment.
The elected echelons offer more hope than the judicial.
As Prof. Neri Horowitz has said, the Supreme Court does not know sociology, and is unsuited to draft decrees in accord with what it does know.
In recent years, the Education Ministry has made important strides in improving secular studies in the haredi sector for boys. (Among the girls it was already above the national average.) It did so by avoiding a direct confrontation over a core curriculum for yeshivot ketanot (for ages 14 to 16), and instead concentrating on the elementary school level and the ever-expanding number of frameworks chosen by haredi parents who do not want the traditional yeshiva ketana curriculum for their sons. It has even found ways to introduce English outside of the formal educational system.
That commonsensical, non-confrontational approach points the way for the Plessner Committee as well.
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.