Guest Columnist: Just let the haredim work

Mr. Prime Minister, just let the haredim work and, in the interim, put everything into place necessary to ease the transition into a system which shares the national responsibilities with equality.

Sea of Haredim 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sea of Haredim 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The issue of haredim and serving the country is certainly a complex one to solve. While it is clear to me that all haredim should serve in one form or another, as long as their rabbis are telling them not to serve, and as long as they feel they are being forced to serve, they will ignore the new legislation.
I spent a recent afternoon in Bnei Brak talking to haredim and many made it clear that they are prepared to go to jail over this issue.
No prime minister can deal with the prospect of having to haul off tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox young men to prison. So, what should be done? Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has chosen to punt and simply not deal with the issue. The proposed legislation, the “Ya’alon Plan,” is a stunt which won’t lead to any serious change from the status quo. The law allows haredi boys to defer between the ages of 18 and 26 and only requires eight hours of study, five days a week during that span – thereby opening the doors of the yeshivot and kollelim to the masses. Once a young man has reached the age of 26, and has a wife and children, he won’t leave the yeshiva to do any kind of national service.
DO I have a better idea? I don’t. But Yair Lapid does.
I have studied every proposed plan and his is the one plan which can work – because it takes the haredim themselves into account.
As opposed to Netanyahu, Lapid did his homework and spoke to regular haredim.
And, as surprising as this may sound, Lapid’s plan is the only one which I believe takes into account what is truly best for the haredi community. My research over the last few months has revealed this truth and it crystallized in my mind during my recent afternoon in Bnei Brak.
The Lapid plan says something plain and simple: For the next five years, open the doors for 18-year-old haredi young men to go to work with no requirement to serve. During those five years the National Authority for Civilian Service will identify the different needs throughout Israeli society and arrange for those needs to be filled by those who will enter National Service after the initial five years. In addition, during those five years a payment plan will be put into place for combat soldiers who serve for a full three years.
During those five years, the army will prepare programs to enable much larger numbers of haredim to serve in the army, and national service models will be created to be specifically geared to the needs of the haredi (and Arab) populations. Those options will include serving in hospitals and senior homes, providing security for neighborhoods in coordination with the police, assisting with Magen David Adom/Hatzalah/ZAKA, and providing much-needed support in educational institutions with a focus on easing the burden in the realm of special education.
I believe that to round out this plan, one point should be added: During those five years the government must pass legislation which stipulates that government funding will flow only to educational institutions which teach the most basic secular studies.
After five years, the plan which requires all to serve will begin. Those who the IDF chooses for combat units will serve for three years and will be given special financial privileges.
Those in non-combat roles or in National Service will serve for two years. A small group of elite Torah scholars will be exempt from any service so their studies can continue uninterrupted. Those who refuse to serve will lose all government funding, with the exception of basic social security.
Why does this plan make the most sense and why is it the only plan which can work? Because it takes the needs and perspective of the haredim into account. Haredim have been brainwashed. A group from the Forum for Equality in National Service recently held a vigil outside the Coca-Cola factory in Bnei Brak. I stood on the side and witnessed two haredi boys walking by while clinging to their fathers asking, “Are they here to take us away to the army?” Their fathers reassured them that this would not happen.
It shocked me, but was also very instructive.
These children have been taught that there are evil people waiting to find a way to make them irreligious, that any involvement with Israeli society is destructive and that they cannot continue to live with their level of piety once they leave the walls of the yeshiva.
As was verified during my discussions with other haredim in Bnei Brak, the moment the restriction of work without service is removed, around 30 percent will immediately leave yeshiva and kollel to go to work.
Indeed, many want to see change. This will quickly alter perceptions and warm most of the community to the reality that one can remain righteous – and even continue to study – while earning a livelihood.
Aside from this, myths and propaganda regarding the secular world will come crashing down. Haredi men have been telling me for months that tensions have been developing in marriages over this issue. Their wives go to work and slowly come to recognize that religious Zionists and the nonobservant live with values and decency and are not the devil they have heard about from their childhood.
This creates tension since the husbands, who are still in the kollel, want to continue educating their children about the Satan which exists “out there” but the wives don’t want to go along with what they now know to be false. Thirty percent of the haredi male population entering the workforce will have a dramatic impact on these perceptions throughout the community and will lay the groundwork for the embracing of service of some kind and slowly becoming a part of Israeli society.
I must also add that this will begin the process of restoring a more moderate haredi world in place of the leanings to the extreme which we have seen in recent years. Having witnessed much of this extremism firsthand in Beit Shemesh and meeting with the “rabbinic” leader of the most extreme group, it is clear to me that exposure to broader society and tearing down some of the walls and barriers will combat most of the extremism which has been so destructive to Israel.
During these five years, the haredi world can be educated regarding what is coming.
Yes, the rabbis and political leaders will continue to warn that soldiers will be entering the study halls to force them into army service in the most immoral and impure circumstances. But there are ways to circumvent them and get the true information to the street.
Once the average haredi understands that options will include two years of assisting in a local clinic or nursing home, or studying in a haredi yeshiva for two years as a preparation for service – coupled with the changed perceptions because of tens of thousands who have already gone to work – rhetoric about the masses proudly marching to jail in defiance of the new law will likely cease.
Is it unfair that haredim should have five years of freedom to work without national service while the rest of the country must serve? Yes. But that is the price we pay for decades of both right- and left-wing governments giving the haredi leaders whatever they asked for. It is a small price, though, to correct Israeli society in the most effective manner.
Many will argue that five years is too long and governments and laws will change in the interim and we won’t achieve equality down the road. Even in the unlikely event that the legislation will be overturned, we will have begun the process anyway. Once the haredi community begins to work, more and more will want to go to work. And once that happens and they slowly become a part of Israeli society, the natural inclination to serve will surely follow, just perhaps at a slower pace than the five-year plan.
The prime minister claims that the Ya’alon Plan was motivated by the notion that change must happen gradually. I most certainly agree that change can only succeed in stages, but the first step has to be some degree of change and not political maneuvering with zero actual change on the ground.
Mr. Prime Minister, just let the haredim work and, in the interim, put everything into place necessary to ease the transition of the haredi masses into a system which shares the national responsibilities with equality. This won’t gain you the support of the haredi political leaders, but it will bring you the respect of the nation, including most haredim.
The writer is an ordained rabbi, educator, author and political activist based in Beit Shemesh.