The Plesner plan for equalization of the burden of national service, released two days ago, is neither crassly populist nor militant. On the contrary, it wisely constructs a compassionate path toward greater ultra-Orthodox participation in the Israeli workforce and the military. It would be a tragedy if political party machinations toss the plan into the waste bin.
MK Yohanan Plesner and the national committee he headed suggest a carrot and stick approach. In deference to haredi values, the Plesner guidelines would allow all haredim to defer army service and set no limit on their numbers. It would further exempt some outstanding yeshiva students from all service permanently, and allow for continued government funding of yeshivas for those with serious Torah careers ahead of them.
This doesn’t sound like a holy war on haredim to me. On the contrary, the committee understood that to demand something really drastic, like the flat-out draft of all 18-year-old haredi males, was simply unrealistic and would be the wrong approach to bridging the gap between mainstream Israelis and their haredi brethren.
Instead, Plesner’s committee acknowledged 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.
The committee also never truly decided what personal sanctions might be imposed on haredi draft dodgers later in life, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disbanded the committee before it could conclude its deliberations. The proposed sanctions that Plesner articulated on Wednesday (speaking only for himself) are tougher than those his committee would likely have agreed upon.
But to dwell on the sanctions issue is to miss the point. Implicit in the Plesner Committee’s approach is the understanding that the greatest problem Israel has 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 living in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak are considered below 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 of haredi men in a non-working, never-ending yeshiva environment breeds religious extremism, including the 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 and colleagues sought to help haredi society re-engineer itself, using the power of the national purse, by ending government subsidies for yeshiva families who don’t do national service beyond their mid-20s; and mandating the establishment of more national service, military and academic educational frameworks appropriate for haredim. This is crafty, intelligent and moderate.
So why did the committee implode before it could conclude its work and formally publish its recommendations? First of all, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman found it politically convenient to throw a monkey’s wrench into the proceedings at the last minute by insisting that the committee also deal with the draft of Israeli Arabs. (This was not part of the committee’s original mandate, which was to replace the soon-to-expire Tal Law, and is truly a different issue).
Secondly, the generally moderate expert advisers on the committee clashed with the professional politicians on the committee, and Netanyahu misunderstood and feared the balance of forces between the two. And then there are the haredim, who formally boycotted the proceedings and scared the prime minister into backing away from the emerging report.
Nevertheless, I think that the Plesner report could still be the thin edge of a good wedge, and its basic direction should be embraced by the Netanyahu government.