Is haredi draft a sham?

Stern proposals offer wiser, less confrontational, more compassionate approach to draft issue than Peri plan or anything else.

Haredi IDF soldiers 370 (photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
Haredi IDF soldiers 370
(photo credit: JEREMY SHARON)
It’s a good thing that the government has decided to wait until October to pass a new haredi-draft law, because its plan needs significant revision. In its current form, the plan suspiciously delays treatment of the problem for years, and unwisely sets Israel up for violent confrontation in the future.
Great fanfare greeted the government plan to draw haredim into military service, as drafted by Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri and colleagues. It recently was brought forward for action to the Knesset’s Shaked Committee on Equal Burden of Service. MK Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) and her committee are supposed to begin drafting the actual legislation on Sunday.
However, the much-ballyhooed plan involves little change over the next four years. Instead, until 2017 it gives a blanket and permanent exemption from military service to all haredi men. That’s 27,000 men (21 years and over at this moment) who will never serve in the army, along with 7,000 additional haredi boys who will turn 18 each year between now and 2017.
The exemption pulls the rug out from under the positive trend toward haredi integration in the army that has been under way for several years.
What haredi man is now going to sign up for the successful Netzah Yehuda infantry battalion, also known as Nahal Haredi, or the Shachar air force unit when he can grab a blanket exemption? Then in 2017, the Peri plan slaps an across-the-board blanket draft order on the haredi community, and hits haredim with criminal sanctions if they don’t bend. It threatens to imprison every haredi man who doesn’t sign up by age 21 (except for 1,800 so-called “exceptional Torah scholars”).
This radical approach – first letting all haredim off the hook and then threatening to throw all haredim into jail – is a recipe for civil war and the breakdown of law and order. The ultra-Orthodox community will defiantly circle the wagons and proudly declare “We’re all criminals.” And when the government fails to arrest them all – there is no practical way to do this – the conscription law will become a dead letter and the rule of law a joke.
Of course, one can safely assume that the haredi political parties will be back in government by 2017 and they’ll act to have the law canceled.
So perhaps the whole thing is a nothing but a bluff. There is too yawning a contradiction between law’s grandiose intentions and its impossible, unwise, and long-off schedule for implementation.
None of the powerful economic incentives and disincentives that will be necessary to nudge the haredi community into military service and into the workforce are built into the bill at this point. No concrete mechanism for ensuring an incrementally rising number of draftees, year by year, is built into the bill, either.
We’re left with promises, threats and procrastination. We’re left with a charade of a law.
Worse still, the plan stipulates a mechanism for granting “exceptional Torah scholar” exemptions that is neither workable nor ethical. It would allow some amorphous haredi community body, not the state, to decide who has to serve and who gets a “Torah genius exemption.”
You can guess who will get the genius exemptions: family members and close associates of haredi community leaders. If that’s not a recipe for corruption, I don’t know what is.
Shaked Committee members would do well to take a close look at the alternative plan for haredi integration in the military drafted by Israel Democracy Institute Vice President Prof. Yedidia Stern, and his assistant, attorney Haim Zicherman. A respected jurist and former Bar-Ilan University law dean, Stern was a member of the now-defunct 2012 Plesner Committee on the haredi draft.
Stern and Zicherman reject the application of criminal sanctions against haredi men, and instead lay out a comprehensive plan of draft incentives and disincentives to be applied to haredi yeshivas. Those institutions that help meet the annual draft goal will see state scholarships for the remaining students rise by 25 percent each year, while institutions that fail to meet draft quotas will see student scholarships cut by 25%, year after year, until they amount to zero.
They believe that such financial pressures will induce realistic and responsible behavior on the part of haredi community and yeshiva leaders, and bring about an incremental and concrete rise in haredi enlistment. (They set out defined draft goals, beginning in 2013 at 36% of haredi 22-yearolds, equaling about 2,000 men, and rising to 66% by 2018, or about 6,000 men).
The incremental approach will be all the more likely to work if the government combines this with massive investment in mechanisms for the integration of haredim in the workforce.
Indeed, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett this week announced an allocation of half a billion shekels for employer incentives and professional training centers for haredim. It’s not enough, but is a good start.
Stern’s plan would see creation of many new military service opportunities for haredi men, including a haredi hesder track which combines combat service with yeshiva study (just as religious- Zionist Israelis have been doing for 40 years), and other “spiritually protected” military service frameworks.
Stern rejects the notion of civil and national service as an alternative to military service, since such haredi “service” tracks are likely to be mere pretenses; bogus methods of signing in and out of duty. Besides, he writes, having haredim in uniform is an important goal of the effort: important to secular Israelis, important for the self-identity of haredim, and important to cohesion and national solidarity.
Brig.-Gen. Gadi Agmon, head of long-term planning in the IDF Planning Directorate, told the Shaked Committee this week that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva leaders were regularly signing fraudulent yeshiva student attendance records to protect men from mandatory military service. “We know that there are thousands of haredim registered in yeshivas to avoid the draft, but who in fact are working and not studying,” he said.
Every single haredi politician at that meeting – including MKs Moshe Gafni, Meir Porush, Ariel Attias and Amnon Cohen – condemned the phenomenon, averring that “any haredi man who is not studying Torah day and night should indeed enlist.” Well, now it’s time to put such pretty haredi protestations to the test, and haredi leaders should grab Stern’s proposals as their own.
The Stern proposals offer a wiser, more graduated, less confrontational and more compassionate approach to the haredi draft issue than the Peri plan or anything else on the table.