Think Again: Lapid flunks the leadership test

Since the earliest days of the state, the IDF has been an agent of socialization.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid gestures during a speech to his Yesh Atid deputies at the Knesset. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid gestures during a speech to his Yesh Atid deputies at the Knesset.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Yair Lapid, Yesh Atid head and finance minister, pushed the criminalization provisions in the new draft law through the cabinet. Without those provisions, he told his cabinet colleagues, he could not sell the law to his supporters.
Rather than call his bluff and possibly bring the government down in the process, those who opposed criminalization – including Ayelet Shaked, who headed the committee that formulated the law, and Defense Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon – caved in and voted for criminalization.
Now, Lapid may be right that he could not have sold his supporters on the draft law without the criminalization provisions, but if so, this merely reflects the degree to which he has bound himself by his own demagoguery – and failed to lead.
In a similar fashion, Yasser Arafat was likely telling the truth when he told US president Bill Clinton at Camp David that signing a peace agreement with Israel would be tantamount to a death sentence for him. But that admission reflected the extent to which Arafat had used the Palestinian Authority media and educational system to whip the Palestinian populace into a frenzy of hatred of Israel since the onset of Oslo.
He completely failed to educate his followers to the reality that a Palestinian state would require concrete Palestinian concessions, including most notably the “right of return.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is even further from being willing and/or able to sign any end-of-conflict agreement today, and for the same reason.
LAPID KNOWS that criminal sanctions will never be applied. For one thing, the government has no intention of throwing large numbers of haredim into jail. And secondly, the design of the new draft law is such that the haredi community will in all likelihood be able to meet the flexible quotas, which are not designed to take effect for another three-and-a-half years.
More importantly, he also knew, or should have known, that the criminal sanctions would not only fail in their declared intent to increase haredi compliance with the law, but would be entirely counterproductive from the point of view of those pushing for greater haredi participation in the IDF and national service. No less an authority than Shahar Ilan, the one-time haredi beat reporter for Haaretz and today the director of Hiddush, an organization with a specifically anti-haredi agenda, has been writing for nearly a year that the one sure way to limit haredi participation in the IDF would be to criminalize failure to comply with the draft law.
Prior to passage of the new draft law, a petition signed by more than a dozen academic researchers on the haredi community and a diverse group of public figures, including Ami Ayalon, former chief of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), argued that “a law based on criminal sanctions would be understood by the haredi community as a declaration of war on the world of the yeshivot, and an expression of contempt by the state of the value of Torah learning.” Not only would such sanctions create a “tear in the societal fabric,” the 33 signatories warned, but the criminal sanctions would “cause an end to the integration of the haredi community” and likely to “leading rabbis prohibiting any form of enlistment.”
The hundreds of thousands who attended the mass prayer gathering in response to the criminalization provisions proved that prediction to be dead-on. The type of economic sanctions favored by Shaked, even if the pain were to be felt more tangibly and directly by the haredi community, could never have drawn those numbers to a prayer rally.
And Ilan reported last week that there has been a dramatic decrease in enlistment in haredi tracks in the IDF. Thus, Lapid has succeeded in setting back a decade-long trend of increased haredi involvement in the IDF.
To understand why, one must appreciate the deep suspicion of the haredi community towards the IDF. Since the earliest days of the state, the IDF has been not only a fighting force, but an agent of socialization. Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion always emphasized its importance as an instrument for forging a unified Israeli identity.
That role as a socializing agent has not diminished over the years. The manner in which the IDF came down on national-religious soldiers who asked to be excused from an event with women singers having no purpose remotely related to defense is one recent example of the use of the army for indoctrination into correct thinking. (Some feminists actually oppose any influx of haredim into the IDF, out of a fear that it would set back the move towards complete integration of women into every aspect of service. As one Haaretz editorial put it: If large numbers of haredim enter the IDF, one of two things can happen. Either they will stop being haredim, or the IDF will stop being the IDF, and the latter is not worth it.) Comments by Education Minister Shai Piron to the effect that creating a single Israeli identity is much more important to him than equality of service have similarly done little to calm haredi fears that the purpose of the push for IDF service is to socialize haredi youth into an entirely different value system. Haredim view many of the norms and mores of the general Israeli society to be antithetical to Torah values, and have no wish to have their children socialized to those values.
DESPITE THEIR long-standing fear of the IDF, haredi society began to take a more positive view of IDF service over the last decade. Many young men from ultra-Orthodox homes – and increasingly their parents – recognized that IDF service could be the best means for gaining the discipline and positive self-identity that they lacked.
In addition, IDF programs for married men in their mid-to-late 20s showed promise of creating a win-win situation. Haredi men would gain valuable training for earning a livelihood, and the IDF would gain a large pool of soldiers well-suited to filling critical manpower needs in technological fields and likely to remain in the IDF beyond the term of mandatory service. Already five years ago, my son-in-law in Bnei Brak commented that it was not uncommon to see young men who had until recently been learning in kollel bringing their children to nursery school in uniform.
As soon as criminalization of non-service began to be discussed, however, those trends slowed. Lapid handed the most conservative elements in haredi society, which had long opposed the trends towards greater integration of haredim in the larger society, the most potent possible weapon. They could now claim that the government had taken a positive step to denigrate Torah study, by creating the possibility that someone might be branded a criminal for his determination to continue his Torah studies. And thus, they argue, service in the IDF constitutes service on behalf of a state that has taken positive steps to show contempt for Torah study.
Immediately, haredim in uniform began to experience forms of social ostracism to which they had been immune for some years, and to be verbally harassed in their communities. Ilan reports on the increased incidence of such harassment over the last nine months. No wonder haredi enlistment has declined. (That reaction in the haredi community has been far from universal: Haredi soldiers in uniform who attended the mass tefila gathering were warmly received and swept into the circle of dancers.) Lapid has sometimes sought to justify the criminalization provisions as necessary for the legislation to survive Supreme Court review. But that claim does not pass the smell test. One does not threaten to bring down the government over the possibility of legal challenges. And a decision by the Supreme Court would have had far less importance in haredi eyes than the imprimatur of the elected representatives of six million Jews on legislation that brands full-time Torah learning as a potentially criminal act of non-contribution to society.
Lapid sought to demonstrate that he had socked it to the haredi public, and to thereby rally his electoral base. It did not matter to him how negative the impact, even in terms of his own professed goals.
That is not a leader.
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.