In Defense of Plesner

Published in The Jerusalem Post, July 5, 2012. Click here for a printer-friendly copy.

The Plesner Committee for equalization of the burden of national service, which published its recommendations yesterday, succumbed neither to populism nor to militancy. On the contrary, it has wisely constructed a calibrated and compassionate path towards greater Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) participation in the Israeli workforce and the military. It is tragedy that the committee’s proposals already seem to have fallen victim to political machinations and fears.

Tasked with finding alternatives to the Tal Law, the committee headed by MK Yohanan Plesner is recommending a carrot and stick approach to regulation of haredi service in the IDF. In deference to Haredi values, the Plesner guidelines would allow all haredim to defer army service at age 18, and set no limit on their numbers. It would further exempt some “prodigious” yeshiva students from all service permanently. At age 22 or 23, when most Haredi men are married with kids, they would have serve for a (less-than-usual) period of civil or military service, and be subject to communal, institutional and, yes, personal financial sanctions too, if they fail to enter service.

Critics on the secular left have accused the Plesner Committee of launching a holy war on the haredim. Not at all! Plesner understood that to demand something drastic, like the flat-out draft of all 18 year old Haredi boys, was simply unrealistic and would be the wrong approach to bridging the gap between mainstream Israeli society and its Haredi brethren.

Instead, Plesner’s committee understood that the Ultra-Orthodox are not about to abandon their unique lifestyle and beliefs simply because a Knesset majority says so. The committee – which included thoughtful and judicious scholars like religious law professors Yedidia Stern and Yaffa Zilbershats, who cannot be accused of imperviousness to Torah values – recognized that army service cannot be rammed down the Haredi throat. It rejected calls to criminalize an entire segment of Israeli Jewry (one-third of all kids in kindergarten are Haredi!) for refusing to don a uniform.

Implicit but essential to understanding of the Plesner Committee recommendations is the understanding that the greatest problem we have with the Haredi world, and its greatest predicament within itself, is not draft dodging. It is the Haredi failure to prepare its young men and women for a productive working role in society.

As a result, the Ultra-Orthodox world suffers from dreadful poverty (half of the 70,000 children in Ultra Orthodox Bnei Brak live under the poverty line) and other social ills – becoming a drain on the Israeli economy and a strain on the fabric of our society. It is also clear that the cloistering-away of Haredi men in a non-working, never-ending yeshiva environment breeds religious extremism – such as fanatic standards of gender separation that now plague the religious world.

Three things prevent the masses of Haredim from leaving the bloated yeshiva world and going out to work: the draft; the incredible, all-embracing cocoon of government stipends and subsidies currently granted to yeshiva families who don’t work; and the fact that most Haredim do not have the secular education necessary to obtain a decent, salaried job in the modern world.

So Plesner’s path seeks to help Haredi society re-engineer itself, using the power of the national purse: end government subsidies for yeshiva families who don’t do national service beyond their mid-twenties; and facilitate the establishment of more national service, military and academic educational frameworks appropriate for Haredim.

Those Haredim with serious Torah careers ahead of them will continue to study Torah in yeshivot of distinction with rigorous acceptance and achievement standards. Religious society will find ways to support them, and I support government funding for such yeshivot too – within reasonable limits.

The rest of Haredi men – the majority – will be drawn out of hiding in unexceptional yeshivot, to their benefit and ours, and into the real working world. Once this begins to happen, Haredi men will realize that they need to get educated in maths, sciences and the humanities; and that service in the army is to their advantage when competing for jobs.

In short, Plesner and his colleagues astutely sought a way to gently nudge haredim 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.

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. This is crafty, intelligent and moderate. There is nothing militant or populist about this.

I am convinced that all Israel needs to provide Haredi society with is an escape hole the size of a needle – reasonable, greatly 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 could be the thin edge of the wedge, and his path should be embraced by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his governing coalition.

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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