Knesset panel’s equal service conundrum goes to the root of Israel’s national character

The Plesner Committee has come up with two very different approaches to ultra-Orthodox conscription — the one its chairman believes must be followed, and the one he fears will be

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

A rally last year against drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the army (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
A rally last year against drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the army (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Gilad Malach, a public policy doctoral candidate at Hebrew University, is currently writing up the Plesner Committee’s legislative recommendations on national service for all. He is working feverishly, filling in the agreed upon facts and waiting until Tuesday for the committee to reach a majority decision on the remaining issues. By Wednesday, The Times of Israel has learned, the committee will submit its report to the prime minister.

The issues that are still undecided, Malach said, can best be condensed into two approaches, dramatically different in their consequences. Aspects of the State of Israel’s very nature could be affected by the choices political leaders make on these issues, because in trying to formulate legislation that profoundly affects whole sectors of Israel’s demographic, the committee has exposed and grappled with some of this divided society’s most complex rifts.

Head of the Knesset's Committee for the Advancement of an Equal Burden, Kadima's Yohanan Plesner (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Head of the Knesset’s Committee for the Advancement of an Equal Burden, Kadima’s Yohanan Plesner (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The first approach, entitled Option A, is favored by committee head Yohanan Plesner (Kadima). Indeed, he regards it as vital to Israel’s ultimate well-being. It calls for the draft of all ultra-Orthodox males, with an annual exemption for a combination of 1,500 particularly gifted or particularly studious scholars. The legislation would likely include a statement about the unique status of Talmud study in the Jewish state. Those who don’t succumb to the draft, by age 23, would be fined personally. The same would be true of their yeshivas and communities. Those who do enlist would be rewarded, both personally and communally.

The committee’s projected results of Option A, in the short term, will be the departure of the ultra-Orthodox from the unity government; societal conflict; a massive increase in army spending – on both salaries for married soldiers with families that could cost up to 10 times the average army wage today; and the formation of new units with a set of dietary and religious requirements. Option A will also yield a law that will pass muster with the High Court of Justice.

In the long term, the law will hold up under judicial review; a new status quo will have been attained; and the ultra-Orthodox will, on account of their service, be free to join the workforce, saving Israel’s economy from what Plesner has called an “existential economic crisis.”

In the balance of carrots and sticks, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated that he feels this option is too heavy on the latter — and too forgiving of the Arab population, which it does not concretely address. On Friday, after a meeting with Kadima head Shaul Mofaz, the prime minister said, “I don’t want there to be a societal explosion on account of the sanctions.”

The second package, by contrast, merely sets a goal of drafting two thirds of ultra-Orthodox young men by age 23.  If this approach is followed, the regime of sanctions and benefits will be far more lax and will not apply to the individual.

In the short term, Malach suggested, this approach could lead to Kadima or Yisrael Beytenu’s departure from the unity government; the economic costs would be minimal; the number of ultra-Orthodox men enlisting would only increase slightly and the High Court of Justice would likely allow the law to stand for the time being.

In the long term, however, the court would overturn the law – it took 10 years for the court to rule against the Tal Law – and the Israeli economy would increasingly teeter under the strain of a growing population and a shrinking workforce.

These are the bricks with which the legislation will be built. The political winds will surely affect the height and width of the structure of the law, which must be passed through the Knesset by August 1. But in many ways they obscure the larger issue with which the committee has grappled: the price of consensus in a fractured society.

The pursuit of a harmonious accord, perhaps offering a glimpse of what forming a constitution would entail, has shone a light on many of the rifts that divide a Jewish state in which one fifth of the citizens are Arabs and one third of the Jewish kindergarteners are ultra-Orthodox. These rifts include:

Women’s Rights: Women have made major strides toward equality ever since president Ezer Weizman called Alice Miller a “meidaleh” and urged the South African-born pilot not to push for acceptance to Israel Air Force flight school in 1993. The High Court of Justice disagreed with the former fighter pilot president and forced the IAF to accept Miller. She failed to make the grade, but in the ensuing years, women, currently 34 percent of all soldiers, have made enormous headway. Those advances will be put at risk as ultra-Orthodox men are inducted into the army.

Plesner, speaking at an emergency conference of women’s rights activists at the Van Leer Institute several weeks ago, acknowledged that the committee had reached an agreement with the army whereby the IDF would, if obligated by law, induct hundreds of soldiers into battalions like Nahal Haredi. These units, by demand, are given a “sterile zone” devoid of women. In the units’ current base, Maj. Gen. (res) Elazar Stern revealed at the recent Israel Democracy Institute Eli Hurvitz Conference on Economy and Society, a new synagogue is under construction: the old one required the soldiers to walk through an area that was open to women.

Plesner, a secular father of three girls, said he sympathized with the women’s concerns but added that “there is a competition here between values.”

Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Ze’ev Lerrer, speaking with The Times of Israel at a different locale, called the sterile zones “a form of apartheid” and argued that the committee was “creating a type of Lebanese army, where the Shiites serve in one unit and the Alawites in another.”

On this issue there will be lip service toward women’s rights and the importance of the IDF as a people’s army, but in the short term, if ultra-Orthodox men do join the army en masse — and they currently represent a potential 13 percent of each draft — women will pay the price of their inclusion. In the long term, the hope is that joint service will have a moderating effect.

The Economy: The army now functions as a sort of jailor lurking outside the yeshiva doors – those who leave the confines of the study hall can be drafted. According to Plesner and many others, this is why the unemployment rate among ultra-Orthodox men under the age of 35 is a soaring 77 percent.  Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told members of the Plesner Committee at the IDI conference that “the IDF will survive” if the ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the army. Society, however, would be gravely affected if they were not drawn into the workforce. Plesner has said the current situation, in terms of the workforce, represents an existential threat. He imagined a scenario in which Israel would have “a third world economy and a first world army” that the taxpayers would not be able to support.

The IDF’s standing as a true people’s army – the only one in the world with a mandatory draft for women – will surely be pitted against the economic imperative to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the modern world.

Equality: There is a reason the official name of the Plesner committee is the Committee for the Advancement of Equal Sharing of the Burden. The key word here, according to many members of the committee, is advancement. “Our goal is to strive for equality, not attain it,” said Yedidia Stern, a professor of law at Bar Ilan University and a committee member who has long focused on the relationship of religion and state.

The dilemma in this regard, in a country where all other Jewish young men are susceptible to the draft, is whether to slowly coax the ultra-Orthodox toward military service or pass a law that shines with equality but is miles above what society is currently capable of attaining. A far more extreme example of this could be the American Declaration of Independence, in which all men were deemed equal despite the dismal standing of African Americans at the time. Opinions on how best to address this issue have differed wildly among the members of the committee.

Jacob Weinroth, an attorney representing the ultra-Orthodox, who resigned from the committee Sunday evening on account of the committee’s intention to impose sanctions for draft dodgers, said any attempt to use force against the ultra-Orthodox would not only stunt all progress made over recent years — there are currently 6,000 ultra-Orthodox students in Israel’s colleges and universities, according to Professor Manuel Trajtenberg — but also place the secular majority in the middle of a battle it cannot win. “Religions,” he said, “are created from these types of conflicts.”

Plesner believes that without sanctions and a draft for all but the best students of Talmud, he will have turned his back on “an historic window of opportunity.”

Stern suggested to committee members that the matter of equality be avoided entirely for the time being and that rather than placing an inherently problematic law in the books, it would be best to simply step away for 10 years. “If we let them do whatever they want, 30 percent will leave the yeshivas,” he said, “and that will create cracks in the wall.” His theory is that as ultra-Orthodox men leave the yeshivas and join the workforce, their extremism will diminish, and society will be saved from drafting an inherently unfair law.

Minority Rights: Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and his representative to the committee, David Rotem, argued that the fact that the Arab citizens of Israel are not being drafted to either military or national civil service is such a violation of the notion of an equal sharing of the burden that they had to resign. Arab MKs, who like the ultra-Orthodox parliamentarians refused to join the committee, disputed this, arguing that equality should come prior to national service requirements.

However, the Supreme Court mandated new legislation only for the ultra-Orthodox — and it was around this issue that the committee’s substantial debate revolved.

Professor and Maj. Gen. (res.) Yishai Beer told members of the committee that while he was concerned about women’s rights in the IDF he was far more worried about the ability to wage a war with battalions of ultra-Orthodox soldiers checking in with their rabbis. He and Stern, both of whom are religious, said that such a scenario would prove entirely untenable.

The committee, however, seems bent on integrating society via the army rather than the other way around. “If within five or six years the large majority of the ultra-Orthodox wear the uniforms of the state, and if those uniforms are hanging in the ghettos of the ultra-Orthodox, then we will have reached an incredible achievement,” said Professor Stern, who also spoke earnestly about ensuring the rights of the ultra-Orthodox minority within the military. “This is the main thing. Everything else is peripheral.”

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