Enlisting haredim divides the nation

We are obliged to start this process today, but must also have the patience to see it through. We have all played a part in creating this mess – we all need to part of the solution.

Haredi and IDF soldier Tal law Jerusalem 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Haredi and IDF soldier Tal law Jerusalem 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Last week, Israelis returned to one of the most important issues of our time, and things instantly got confusing. On Sunday, the government approved a proposal to enlist 1,300 haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men in a national service program while at the same time giving them a permanent deferral from army service. This was followed by a petition to the High Court of Justice by Yair Lapid and his new party Yesh Atid challenging the proposal’s legality. This of course was followed by the usual mantras of “You can’t drag boys out of the yeshivot” on the one hand, and “It’s a disgrace that there are any yeshivot” on the other, and so on and so on.
How did we get back into this mess? It all arose due to the legal limbo Israel finds itself in. On the one hand the Supreme Court has ruled that the so-called Tal Law granting pardon from military service to yeshiva students is not legal and is no longer in force. At the same time, the Knesset has not replaced it with a new law.
De jure, this means that all of those above the age of 18, haredi or otherwise, need to be conscripted with minimal formal discretion to permit deferrals. But as anyone involved in these issues knows, there is no political will, or even practical ability, to turn 75,000 yeshiva students into soldiers.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are not willing, and the army is not capable.
So was the government’s move a welcome compromise? Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz has claimed that this week’s proposal is a practical way of recruiting some haredim to the civil program of national service that is run under his auspices, and while he also agrees that there needs to be a broader settlement of the issue it would be cutting of society’s nose to spite its face not to recruit those that we can.
Let’s remember that Hershkowitz’s party (Bayit Yehudi) was one of the first to withdraw from the Plessner Committee charged with finding the solution to this thorny issue, so he does not have completely clean hands.
However he is not alone in being part of the problem. We have as a society created, nurtured and fostered a climate encouraging haredim of all shades and styles to expect that whatever they seek, non-haredi society – through its political representatives – will give. Not only will it give, but it will demand little or nothing in return.
Whether it is mass army deferrals, long-term funding to support those in full-time learning, state aid for schools that teach minimal or nonexistent secular studies, and the list goes on. Through this political process we have actually encouraged the haredi community to become more insular and segregated from wider society.
Frankly, if I were haredi I would also have welcomed this largesse on the part of the rest of society and not worried too much about the why! It is clear to all, including many sensible people within the haredi communities, that this status quo is untenable and dangerous for the economic and social future of the country. While the haredim represented 2 percent of the population it was a burden which could be carried. With 15 percent of the population and growing it is clear that it cannot be sustained.
Haredim need to be better educated so that they can integrate more fully in the workforce, but more importantly they need to feel that they carry a societal responsibility for the country along with the rest of us.
Waving a magic wand, political or otherwise, will not resolve a problem created over six decades. More fundamentally the blame cannot and should not be placed exclusively at the door of haredi society. It takes two to tango and it has been politically expedient over the decades for secular society to put its collective head in the sand, ignoring the inevitable longterm effect of this policy of granting near complete autonomy to haredi society on the one hand, and giving it almost exclusive ownership over institutional religion on the other.
I am sure that the route to change will be filled with dogma and sound bites, accompanied with a desperate clinging to the old order on the part of the haredi politicians. Human spirit has the power to overcome these obstacles, but only if both haredi and non-haredi citizens accept that the problem cannot be provided by a win-lose scenario, but only through a genuine win-win scenario.
The starting point for this change is grass-roots dialogue between community leaders who see the problems on the front lines. This dialogue firstly breaks down decades of stereotypes and will lead to a more practical and less lofty debate about the issues which are central to all our lives. The haredim are here to stay, and so are the rest of us.
We are obliged to start this process today, but must also have the patience to see it through. Politicians from all sides of the spectrum need to respect this as crossing party lines and create coalitions in support of change, and not to protect the status quo. We have all played a part in creating this mess – we all need to part of the solution.
Daniel Goldman is chairman of Gesher, a Jerusalembased charity devoted to bridging the differences between Israelis and strengthening a shared Jewish identity.