Shaked’s uncertain social engineering

The military conscription bill is a slam-dunk victory for the haredi community.

Bayit Yehudi MK Ayelet Shaked 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Bayit Yehudi MK Ayelet Shaked 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Don’t let contrived haredi umbrage fool you. The military conscription legislation being introduced in the Knesset plenum next week by the Shaked Committee is a flat-out victory for the haredi community.
The sweet Shaked plan puts an end to the notion of “equalizing the burden.” Very, very few haredim will ever have to take up arms to defend the country.
The bill completely lifts the threat of military draft at age 18 for the ultra-Orthodox. It gives an immediate lifetime exemption from military service to all haredi men currently 22 years and older, and to all haredi men currently aged 18 to 22, when they hit age 26. That is about 50,000 haredim who never will have to perform national service of any type, courtesy of the Yesh Atid-Bayit Yehudi alliance.
The Shaked plan legally enshrines Torah study as an “important value,” legislates government-supported Torah studies for all haredi males until age 21, without exception; and allows most haredim who want to seriously study Torah fulltime to do so even beyond that age. In addition, 1,800 haredim men of any age, considered scholastic Torah prodigies (“illuyim”), will be selected every year through an as-yet-unknown mechanism and receive permanent service exemptions – because they are “a critical national treasure.”
According to Shaked, national service responsibilities will begin to devolve on haredim several years hence (in 2017), and further down the road criminal sanctions theoretically can be levied on 21-year-old haredi men who refuse to serve.
However, there is a humongous trick, a devious dodge, built into the bill: Conscription will only devolve on a “communal” basis. Certain minimal “quotas” of haredim have to be drafted, not all of them or even most of them. Cunningly, the target goals for the community are set so low and the definition of a “haredi” person is set so malleably that haredi society will easily fill the quotas with marginal youth or older men who anyway are on their way out of yeshiva and kollel.
Consider the demographic details. The draft target for 2017 is set at about 5,000 haredi men, out of 60,000 haredim in the 18-26 age cohort. This shouldn’t be a problem for the community, since there are about 3,000 young men from the margins of the haredi community already entering some shortened form of civil or military service; and the margins of the community are expanding as it rapidly grows in size. (Haredim already comprise 11 percent of Israeli society, and 50% of them are under the age of 14). The definition of “haredi” in the law is elastic enough such that haredim will be able to claim many drafted boys from the less-haredi religious community as their own.
In addition, there will be significant financial incentives to serve. Consider the details: More than 70% of haredi men are married with children by age 22. They will be faced with a choice: Stay in kollel and receive, at most, a NIS 1,500 stipend each month (if they can find a scholarship available in the shrunken kollel market since the government has cut the budgets); or opt for a plethora of new haredi integration tracks in civilian service, academia, the police, Magen David Adom and peripheral units of the IDF. These tracks will count as national service, pay more than NIS 4,000 a month, and provide professional training.
This will enable marginal haredi youth and older married men to make the transition into working society, within haredi- friendly environments (and all at considerable government expense). The betting is that plenty of haredi men will choose the latter; certainly enough to meet the low-ball draft quotas incumbent on the community as a whole.
Meanwhile, the bulk of the hardcore, serious student body in yeshivot and kollelim will be able to continue studying Torah full-time, without being drafted at all, for any period of time, to any framework, and without any penalty, ever. It’s clear that the real yeshiva world will not have to join in “carrying the burden.” From the haredi point of view, this is a slam-dunk victory.
So why is haredi leadership vociferously venting its anger against the law? There are two answers to this question.
First, although not foremost, there is the threat of criminal sanctions for haredi draft-dodgers.
Haredi leaders object to this as a matter of principle, and they are using the theoretical threat of sanctions to rally the haredi community against the entire package of Shaked’s reforms.
Of course, the community will easily meet the Mickey Mouse-communal draft targets and therefore criminal sanctions against haredim are extraordinarily unlikely to ever kick in. Furthermore, the bill stipulates that application of criminal sanctions will require review and reaffirmation by the cabinet, and haredi politicians correctly assume that by 2018 they’ll be back in government and be able to block any move to sanctions.
So haredi leaders know that the sanctions provision is a temporary sop for Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid’s political purposes. They are re-purposing Lapid’s populism to build the walls around their community even higher.
A second and much more salient reason for the haredi uproar is the trepidation of yeshiva deans that under the new arrangements, noteworthy numbers of kollel men will leave for the working world in their mid to late 20s.
Yeshiva deans fear and resent the attractive serve/study/work tracks that the government of is opening. They are worried, with good reason, that increasing numbers of young married men will be squeezed out of yeshiva life and enticed into real life. They understand that this is what the Shaked bill is really all about. And they dread the development of a haredi middle class that is not directly under their thumb.
This explains the strident haredi attacks on religious-Zionist hesder yeshivot (which combine yeshiva study with combat duty) and on the modern- Orthodox community.
They fear and resent the alternative model for religious life presented by the hesder boys and by seriously frum working men who thrive intellectually, spiritually and financially in the armed forces, universities, hospitals, hi-tech companies, banks and business world – while studying Torah and upholding Halacha simultaneously.
Where do we go from here? There are many problems with the Shaked legislation, beginning with the criminal sanctions provision that has given haredi radicals the upper hand in that community. A major additional problem is the blanket service exemption that masses of haredim are to receive over the next four years.
The Supreme Court could very well shoot this down as inequitable.
The blanket exemption provision is also problematic in that it essentially 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 going to sign up between now and 2017 for the successful Netzah Yehuda Battalion (“Nahal Haredi”) or the Shahar (an acronym for “service for haredim”) air force units when he can grab a blanket exemption? Worse still, the Shaked 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.
All told, we’re left with little military draft and lots of auspicious but uncertain social engineering. Very few haredi soldiers, but perhaps a modicum of haredi engineers.
No battalions of haredi border police, but, one hopes, fewer ultra-Orthodox families on the dole. It’s guess-work whether this iffy plan will actually work.