Memo to Camp Sucker Protestors

Published in Israel Hayom, June 28, 2012. Click here for a printer-friendly copy.


Memo to the “Camp Sucker” protestors demanding complete equalization of the burden of national service: Get real, and get behind the Keshev Committee recommendations! It’s the only and best deal in town.

Tasked with finding alternatives to the Tal Law, the committee headed by MK Yohanan Plesner is about to recommend a new carrot and stick approach to regulation of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) service in the IDF. It will exempt some “prodigal” yeshiva students from all service while directing all the others – the majority of Haredi men – to civil or military service and subjecting them to communal, institutional and possibly personal sanctions if they fail to enter service by age 23.

Camp Sucker spokesmen have particularly objected to blanket deferment of yeshiva students’ service until the age of 22 or 23, when most Haredi men are married with kids. ‘What is the army really going to do with Haredim at this stage, and who is going to pay the high cost of drafting family men?’ they angrily ask.

I say: Take a deep breath, swallow hard, and embrace the new proposals. While not comfortable or really equitable, the proposals hold forth the best possibility for drawing Haredim into mainstream Israeli society – into national service and into the real, working world.

The Ultra-Orthodox are not about to abandon their unique lifestyle and beliefs simply because a Knesset majority says so. Army service cannot be rammed down the Haredi throat, and we are not about to criminalize an entire segment of Israeli Jewry (one-third of all kids in kindergarten are Haredi!) for refusing to don a uniform.

But we can help them do ‘teshuva’ (repentance) through the shouldering of more national burden and economic responsibility, without destroying their theological world – by making the costs of non-service very high.

Plesner’s committee understands that the long-term solution to the inequitable draft situation is to help Haredi society re-engineer itself. We can help accomplish this through the power of the national purse. Today, Haredim not only get off scot-free by not serving, but they benefit from it tremendously. Yeshiva families who don’t work enjoy an incredible, all-embracing cocoon of government stipends and subsidies (including massive reductions in municipal taxes, health insurance fees, rental fees, and school fees) unavailable to anybody else in Israel. Haredi parents pay 90 percent less than Religious Zionist parents, for example, for the schooling of their kids.

The Plesner committee would begin to end this, with graduated financial sanctions on yeshivot and Haredi community institutions whose students don’t serve. Conversely, once they serve, Haredi men will have access to government subsidies for education of themselves and their children, for job placement and more.

Realistically, this is the only way Haredim will enter the army and the workforce; only as a result of long-term, deep-rooted change in the economic patterns of Haredi society. Non-Haredi Israel has a responsibility to help effect this change through incentives and strong disincentives.

I think that it can work. I am convinced that all we need to do is provide Haredi society with an escape hole the size of a needle – reasonable, reduced service opportunities that allow them to maintain their Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, and financial incentives for taking the plunge – and the trickle of Haredim currently serving in the IDF will become a deluge. Plesner can be the thin edge of the wedge.

To demand something more drastic, like the flat-out draft of all 18 year old Haredi boys, is simply not realistic. It won’t fly politically; it won’t happen in actuality; and it is the wrong approach to bridging the gap between mainstream Israeli society and our Haredi brethren.

If Camp Sucker protestors nevertheless want a provision or two to fight for, I’ll give them two suggestions. One: Make sure that Plesner’s recommendations for personal sanctions on Haredim who fail to serve don’t get lost in the political bargaining between Netanyahu-Mofaz and Haredi political leaders. It is critical that the dis/incentives discussed above be applied personally, not only institutionally.

Second of all, pay close attention to the question of where Haredim will be directed to serve. This matter has been debated extensively in the Plesner committee and the whole venture could rise or fall accordingly. Will Haredim be directed to serve mainly in new military units (specially adapted their needs) or in new civil service frameworks?

The difference is enormous. Serving in the military involves a uniform and military discipline. The uniform is a tool of identity-formation and Zionist integration. The army also has an entire apparatus for administering and tracking its inductees. This makes service in the military (or the police and the like) meaningful and serious.

Haredim who are sent to serve in civil frameworks, however, would not have the same identity-educational bonding experience, and, I fear, would not be subject to any significant degree of regimentation and discipline. Service in loose civil frameworks could be more bluff than burden.

In the course of Plesner Committee hearings, it became clear that the IDF does not really want to draft many more Haredim. It really doesn’t, despite public assertions to the contrary. Haredi integration in the military is very complicated, expensive, and involves other trade-offs – such as a re-thinking of the role and place of women in the IDF. Consequently army brass would rather see most Haredim placed in civilian service frameworks.

But as I say, this would be a mistake; a missed opportunity. Thus for the sake of national unity and equity, Camp Sucker activists should be pushing for a substantial expansion in the number and scope of IDF service tracks available specifically to the Ultra-Orthodox, including haredi hesder programs (combining military service with yeshiva studies over an extended period), haredi military technician courses, and more.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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