Shaked’s uncertain social engineering

Published in The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom, March 7, 2014.

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The new military conscription law is a slam-dunk victory for the Haredi community. There will be no brigades of Haredi border guards; only more Ultra Orthodox insurance brokers – perhaps. 

Don’t let contrived Haredi umbrage fool you. The military conscription legislation being tabled 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 Haredim. It gives an immediate, lifetime exemption from military service to all Haredi men currently 22 years and older; and to all Haredi boys currently 18-22, when they hit age 26. That is about 50,000 Haredim who never will have to serve national service of any type, courtesy of the Yesh Atid-Bayit Yehudi alliance.

The Shaked plan legally enshrines Torah study as an “important value” and legislates government-supported Torah studies for all Haredi men until age 21, without exception; and allows most Haredim who want to seriously study Torah full-time to do so even beyond that age. In addition, 1,800 Haredim 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 supposedly 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 boys who refuse to serve.

However, there is a humongous trick, a devious dodge, built into the law: The draft 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 Haredi 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 that 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 boys, out of 60,000 Haredim in the 18-26 age cohort. This shouldn’t be a problem for the Haredi community, since there are about 3,000 boys 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 the community rapidly grows in size. (Haredim already comprise 11 percent of Israeli society, and 50 percent are under the age of 14). The definition of “Haredi” in the law is also 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 percent 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 (if they can find a kollel scholarship available in the shrunken kollel market since the government has cut the budgets); or opt for a plethora of new, special Haredi integration tracks in civilian service, academia, the police, MDA, 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 Haredi community as a whole.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the hardcore, serious student body in yeshivot and kollelim will be able to continue learning 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 Haredi 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 law stipulates that application of criminal sanctions will require review and re-affirmation 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 Yair Lapid’s political purposes. They are re-purposing Lapid’s populism to build the walls around their community even higher.

The more Yair Lapid crows to his electoral base about his victory in slapping criminal sanctions on Haredi draft dodgers, the more the Haredi community is repelled from integration in the economy and national service. The more the Haredi community rallies to denounce the “evil empire” that is “persecuting” the Ultra-Orthodox, the greater a hero Lapid becomes among his voters. In short, the radicals in each camp are feeding off each other.

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 Israel is opening before the Haredi community. 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 law is really all about. And they dread the development of a Haredi middle class that is not directly under their thumb.

This also explains the strident Haredi attacks on Religious Zionist hesder yeshivot (which combine yeshiva study with military combat duty) and on the Modern Orthodox religious 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 underway for several years. What Haredi man is going to sign up between now and 2017 for the successful Haredi Nahal unit or the Shahar 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.

Moreover, the already-low-ball draft quotas for Haredim are not actually enshrined in the law. The quotas can be dialed down yet further by a future cabinet to align with re-jiggered coalition needs. And I bet that they will.

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 guards, but, one hopes, less Ultra-Orthodox families on the dole. It’s guess-work whether this iffy plan will actually work.

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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