My proposal is the only realistic basis, says the MK who tried to solve Israel’s ultra-Orthodox conscription crisis

The August 1 deadline has come and gone. His Kadima party now sits powerless in opposition. But Yohanan Plesner is convinced his legislative proposal for equal national service, buried by the prime minister, has life in it yet

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Yohanan Plesner in conversation with Shas Party head Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who served in the army but boycotted the Plesner Committee (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
Yohanan Plesner in conversation with Shas Party head Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who served in the army but boycotted the Plesner Committee (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

In May, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner six weeks to propose legislation that would, after 64 years, draw the ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli military.

The plan was to draft a bill that could be passed through the Knesset by August 1, at which point the existing law regarding ultra-Orthodox conscription, deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, would expire.

On July 4, at nine in the morning, Plesner arrived at the Knesset. He looked well-rested and confident. There was little evidence of the fact that he and his staff had completed the report at five in the morning.

There was no sign of exasperation or despair from the 40-year-old MK even though each and every one of the lawmakers and professional experts he had worked with had abandoned the committee.

He thanked the prime minister for his “full backing” and said he trusted his “judgment”… even though just two days earlier, as Plesner sprinted toward the finish line, Netanyahu had pulled the rug out from under him, announcing that “for all intents and purposes the committee has disbanded.”

The Yisrael Beytenu Party left the committee on June 28, citing an overly lenient attitude toward the national service of Arab citizens of Israel. The Jewish Home Party followed suit. So, too, did Jacob Weinroth, the unofficial representative of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox parties, who lambasted the proposal to fine those who would fail to heed the state’s call to service.

.Plesner, who served as an adviser to the Pentagon and later to Prime Minister Sharon, in his usual suit and tie in Knesset (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
Plesner, who served as an adviser to the Pentagon and later to Prime Minister Sharon, in his usual suit and tie in Knesset (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

Undeterred, Plesner proceeded to unveil a potentially significant report, telling a press conference that though his colleagues had faltered, he was completing the “stretcher march” — a reference to the kind of arduous military training Plesner once went through in the elite commando unit in which he served, in which colleagues are carried for hours on stretchers to build up troops’ strength and morale.

A potentially significant report, but one that has been pushed into potentially irrelevant status since Plesner and his Likud “partner” Moshe Ya’alon subsequently failed to refine it to their mutual satisfaction, and Plesner’s Kadima party then bolted the coalition in disgust.

Last week, the August 1 deadline now having passed with no new law on the books, The Times of Israel spoke with Plesner about the process of assembling his landmark, shelved document and the significance of the current somewhat anarchic situation regarding the draft of the ultra-Orthodox.

Plesner termed the present reality — in which young ultra-Orthodox males should all theoretically be being drafted, but are not — a social, legal and constitutional crisis and placed the blame squarely on Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.

“The trouble is that, in politics, those players looking to veto initiatives have far more strength than those looking to contribute,” he said of the parties that derailed his committee.

The brunt of Plesner’s ire is directed at Netanyahu, whom he believes appointed the committee even as he knew all along that he would not accept any of its findings. “He is still stuck in the bloc concept. He believes you need a far-right bloc and an ultra-Orthodox bloc in order to rule,” Plesner said. “Many years ago he was an excellent hasbara (PR) man for the state of Israel, but currently he has immersed himself entirely in preserving his political considerations. That’s why I said he’s dangerous, because he is mortgaging the future of the state of Israel. He must be removed from his post.”

A conflict older than the state

In truth, though, as Plesner knows well, Netanyahu is hardly the first Israeli leader to balk at changing the status quo on the matter of ultra-Orthodox conscription. The decision to exempt ultra-Orthodox Talmud scholars from military service in the Jewish state, as Plesner wrote in his report, is older than Israel itself.

“A decision has been reached that the Yeshiva boys, according to authorized lists, shall be exempted from military service,” Plesner quotes the Haganah chief of staff as saying on March 9, 1948, some two months before Israel declared independence. “Self defense classes shall be provided, in their halls of study, to those that are able.”

Several months later David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister, exempted 400 yeshiva students from military service. He wanted to ensure, as then Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch wrote earlier this year, that, after the decimation of the Holocaust, “the candle of Torah would not be extinguished.”

According to Plesner, Ben-Gurion also wanted to avoid a scenario in which the yeshiva heads came out against him in the international arena.

By 1958, though, he regretted it.

Plesner published in his report a letter written by Ben-Gurion to Israel’s chief rabbi Yitzhak Halevy Herzog, who had argued eloquently and pointedly in 1948 in favor of allowing “the remainder of the few survivors” to continue to study Torah rather than serve in the military.

“As pertains to the yeshiva boys,” Ben-Gurion wrote, “the matter, it seems to me, is not that simple. When 10 years ago I exempted the yeshiva boys from military service, their numbers were few and, as I was told then, this was the only land in which Torah scholars continued to study l’shma (for its own sake)… The situation since then has changed.”

Ben-Gurion noted that their numbers had increased, into the thousands, and that there was talk of some boys entering the yeshiva world in order to avoid the draft. More importantly, he wrote, “We are all Jews here, and our security rests on ourselves and ourselves alone; and this is foremost a large moral question, whether it is worthy that the son of one mother is killed in the defense of the homeland and the son of a different mother sits in his room, studying in safety, while the majority of the youth of Israel put their very lives at risk.”

It was precisely on those grounds that the Supreme Court, in February of this year, deemed the existing legislation on exemptions to be unconstitutional.

Plesner’s approach

To Plesner, who was raised in Jerusalem and organized his first universal draft protest at age 18, drawing some 2,000 high school seniors, there are three central issues. The first is what he calls “an expanding lack of equality.”

Israel requires a longer mandatory military service than any other nation, and it is the only country in the world with a draft for women. Yet under the penalty-free Tal Law, which was theoretically supposed to “significantly reduce” the number of exemptions, the number of those receiving them doubled, he said.

“You cannot give an across-the-board exemption, forcing one group to serve and to pay for its own studies while the other group doesn’t serve and doesn’t pay for its own yeshivas.”

According to Plesner, the government pays roughly one billion shekels ($250 million) a year in yeshiva stipends for adults.

The second issue is purely military. Plesner, who served for five years in the IDF’s top unit, Sayeret Matkal, said that the IDF lacks combat soldiers. Contrary to all reports about the army not wanting ultra-Orthodox soldiers because of the pay scale, the religious restrictions or the fear expressed by some former generals that homogenous units of ultra-Orthodox men would likely take orders only from their rabbis, Brig. Gen. Gadi Agmon, who addressed the committee repeatedly and was in close contact with Plesner, made clear throughout the process that the army needs men in fighting units.

In fact, Plesner claimed that back in 2000, when the Tal Law was written, the army’s position in favor of drafting the ultra-Orthodox was merely a reflection of a desire for equality. “Since 2005, though, there’s been a demographic dip that threatens the feasibility of a people’s army.”

A Border Policeman and an ultra-Orthodox man in Jerusalem on Shabbat (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
A Border Policeman and an ultra-Orthodox man in Jerusalem on Shabbat (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)

Asked whether it might be altogether more convenient and healthy for Israeli society to adopt a professional army, he said that the notion is “theoretically interesting but not practical.”

“We won’t have enough people, we won’t have enough money to pay for it, and there is no way to preserve the quality of those who are drafted.”

Plesner said that Israel is the only country in the world in which the top 15 percent of society serves under arms.

And finally, there is what he calls “the deepening” of the economic problem. Plesner, with a BA in economics from the Hebrew University’s prestigious Amirim program and an MA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, often seemed most passionate about this side of the equation while discussing the report. He quoted Eugene Kendall, Head of the National Economic Council, as saying that the status quo today, with ultra-Orthodox male unemployment at nearly 60 percent, is “an existential” concern for the state.

According to Plesner’s calculations, if the male ultra-Orthodox unemployment rate dropped to 20 percent, Israel’s GDP would be boosted by an additional 8.25 billion shekels a year.

He said the situation today, whereby married men learn in a Kolel, without any job prospects, “is historically unprecedented” in Jewish history, “both in Europe and in the Arab lands.”

According to Gilad Malach, one of the report’s content advisers, the “phenomenon known as a Kolel” — where adults are paid to study — “simply did not exist in Europe. The vast majority studied up until the age of 14. Those that were very talented continued to study until 17-18. And only a rare few studied into adulthood — and they either became rabbis or had a rich father-in-law.”

Plesner is aware that the riddle he has tried to solve is as old as the enlightenment.

The solution, according to him, is in the details. Many tried to push him to raise the draft age or dampen the sanctions, but he refused.

Plesner’s plan calls for contacting ultra-Orthodox males at age 17 and maintaining annual contact until age 22. Those who choose to join the army will serve for 16-24 months and will be allowed to serve in a wider variety of units, tailored to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox community. The earlier they enlist, the greater the state funding for their yeshivas. The army will also establish a track for gifted students, allowing them to acquire a profession before their service – as doctors, lawyers and engineers. The track will be constructed especially for the needs of the community.

At the age of 22, by which time most yeshiva students are married, each man must decide if he would like to perform either 24 months of army service, which would include technological job training; 18 months of full-time national service or 24 months of part-time service; or submit his candidacy to be included in an annual pool of 1,500 exceptional and exceptionally devoted students.

Those who do not succumb to the draft will face personal and institutional fines and, by 2016, will be in violation of the law.

Recently in Knesset, Plesner listened intently as Defense Minister Ehud Barak explained that he had asked the IDF to prepare a report on its needs and recommendations regarding ultra-Orthodox conscription within 30 days.

Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev flattered the defense minister, saying that Barak knew the ultra-Orthodox community better than anyone and that he knew that “you cannot change the ultra-Orthodox community through legislation.”

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni was less complimentary. He told Barak, “Maybe you should volunteer with us? Maybe you should serve with us? Maybe you should stop educating your children toward ignorance? Maybe you are the shirkers?”

Barak promised all present, “What was will not be.”

Plesner shares the assessment. He remains certain that though he was forced to submit his report in the first person, in his name alone, it will be the basis for any future resolution.

For now, however, he’s the only one carrying the stretcher.


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