On Haredi draft, politics trumps pragmatism

On Haredi draft, politics trumps pragmatism

By imposing criminal sanctions on draft dodgers but delaying implementation till 2017, Knesset panel starts a culture war without rooting out the problem

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters clash with police, February 6, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox protesters clash with police, February 6, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Shaked Committee formally decided on Wednesday to include criminal sanctions for Haredi draft dodgers as part of new legislation to address the issue of equality in service.

There were other paths the committee could have taken, such as financial sanctions or reductions in government benefits. But Finance Minister Yair Lapid insisted, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consented, and so a majority on the committee of MKs voted to treat as criminals Haredi yeshiva students who refuse to do national service.

The die has been cast. A culture war has likely been ignited. Many Haredi leaders have railed against the idea that their yeshiva students might serve the state, saying that forced mass service would destroy their way of life.

Other Haredi leaders, including most of the MKs from the two Haredi Knesset factions, Shas and United Torah Judaism, were more willing to compromise, agreeing to measures that would require military or civil service, but only for yeshiva students who were not fully engaged in their studies.

Now, the decision to impose criminal penalties on Haredim who don’t serve, a stipulation that could theoretically lead to the jailing of thousands of yeshiva students, has fatally undermined the moderates, according to some keen observers.

The Haredi leadership is framing the situation as “a coalition of extremists,” explained Channel 2 journalist and respected commentator on Israeli Orthodoxy Sivan Rahav-Meir. “Extremist Haredim and the extremist Lapid. The extremist Haredim won big time,” Rahav-Meir added in a report on Channel 2 Wednesday night.

“Haredi MKs sought a path of political compromise, dialogue. They told [Jewish Home MK and Shaked Committee chair] Ayelet Shaked in countless secret meetings, ‘go with us. Those who really aren’t studying [in yeshiva] will go out to the army and work, but not with criminal sanctions, not by force — in a healthy process.’ From tonight, there’s no more reason for [Haredi moderates] to be there. Now the moderates will be part of the extremist branch,” Rahav-Meir said.

Lapid’s insistence on criminal sanctions makes any compromise unpalatable to even the most compromising Haredi leaders, and in fact it may have collapsed the internal Haredi debate over the issue into a united wall of opposition.

That may pose a fundamental problem when it comes time to implement the new proposed law. As Rahav-Meir noted, unless Lapid envisions the government forcibly incarcerating thousands of pious young men year after year, then, at the end of the day, “these people must agree to what he wants to do to them.”

There is much in the new bill to entice young Haredim. As Lapid is fond of noting, under the previous provisions of the so-called Tal Law (which exempted tens of thousands of yeshiva students from service and which remains unofficially in force today until a new bill is passed), Haredi students could avoid service only on condition that they were actively attending yeshivas. Thus, many were consequently “trapped” in yeshivas and unable to leave to find jobs or careers, lest they find themselves in violation of the terms that allowed them to avoid military service.

“In a few months, tens of thousands of Haredim will receive notices that they can leave the yeshivas and integrate into the workforce,” Lapid enthused on his favorite public relations outlet, his Facebook page, on Wednesday night.

But he failed to note on Facebook a more fundamental issue: Can a law instituting criminal sanctions on thousands of people each year be implemented?

Even a group such as Hiddush, headed by a Reform rabbi and advocating the separation of religion and state in Israel, has come to reject the idea that such criminal penalties are either practical or wise.

“Establishing criminal sanctions is a classic example of [politicians] cheating the public and placing the coalition’s survival over the good of the country,” Hiddush director Rabbi Uri Regev and deputy director Shahar Ilan said in a statement late Wednesday.

Illustrative photo of a Haredi yeshiva, August 29, 2013 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of a Haredi yeshiva, August 29, 2013 (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The criminalization “promises that we won’t get equal service, but we will get a painful and unnecessary social fracture… Everyone knows it won’t be possible to throw thousands of yeshiva students in jail, making this a bill that can’t be implemented, but which is actually intended to get headlines and Facebook statuses,” they accused.

And, they note, the bill only sees the sanctions start to be implemented in mid-2017.

It is that last point that suggests that the bill is as much a product of political wrangling as it is of thoughtful policymaking. While thousands of young Haredi men will be released from their obligations to serve or to study within the next few months, no sanctions will be leveled until… just after the next election.

“[Lapid] knows that it’s not possible to implement [the criminal sanctions], so he’s pushing implementation to 2017. The troubles will come after the next election,” said a coalition politician who asked not to be named.

While opposition to criminal sanctions crosses the political divide, from Haredi MKs to Hiddush, from Jewish Home on the right to Arab MKs on the left concerned that their own young men may soon find themselves in a similar position, Lapid managed to push the sanctions through because he could rely on Netanyahu. And Netanyahu, say insiders, offered his support in order to keep Lapid in the coalition.

“The last thing [Netanyahu] needs is for Lapid,” who has dropped precipitously in the polls over the past year, “to rehabilitate himself in the opposition,” said the same coalition member. The two parties compete for many of the same voters, Netanyahu knows. Lapid’s stunning 19-seat sweep in the last elections in January of 2013 had a lot to do with the Likud’s own fall to just 20 seats, the lowest number for a ruling party in Israel’s history. So a rehabilitation for Lapid (he now polls at 13 seats and lower) is likely to come at the direct expense of Likud.

At the same time, the delayed implementation is convenient for Lapid. It allows him to go to the next elections, slated for January 2017 at the latest, telling his voters that if he does not return with a strong showing to the cabinet table, the hard-won victory of the “equality in service law” won’t be implemented.

One Jewish Home MK uncharitably suggested to reporters on Wednesday that if Haredi leaders had agreed to criminal sanctions in the new bill, Lapid would have sought some other measure he could fight over.

Lapid was spoiling for a fight he could win, and Netanyahu sought to prevent a coalition partner from becoming a political counterweight. Both men have realized their short-term political objectives, and Israeli society may have to pick up the pieces.

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