Netanyahu and the Haredim
by Isi Leibler
July 10, 2012
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s impulsive dissolution of the Plesner
Committee dealing with the haredi draft was a blunder from he and the
Likud faction are now trying to extricate themselves. If this fails, it
will lead to his political undoing.
Despite achieving the broadest national consensus on foreign policy
issues since the great divide over the Oslo accords, the rage that will
be directed against him if he capitulates to the haredi rabbis over the
conscription crisis will overwhelm him. Israelis are fed up with a
situation in which a growing sector of the community exploits its
excessive political leverage to extort favors exclusively benefiting its
one dimensional constituency. The new focus on the longstanding draft
exemption of haredim has brought this to boiling point.
The recent Tel Aviv demonstration reflects the broad support for this
issue amongst disparate sections of the community. It is unprecedented
to witness representatives from throughout the entire social spectrum –
the far-left New Israel Fund, the Israeli Reform Movement, the kibbutz
Movement, the National Student Union, the hard line Zionist Im Tirzu,
secular and national religious bodies - all uniting under the one
banner. If Netanyahu allies with haredim against all these forces, his
days as a political leader would be numbered. And rightly so.
Most Israelis demand that Haredim be drafted like all other citizens
with no special considerations other than ensuring that their religious
observance is respected.
But the reality is that the IDF could not absorb large numbers of
haredim overnight and integrating youngsters with such a different
lifestyle is enormously complex and requires special attention.
The differing backgrounds of haredim must be factored. For example, a
large proportion of Shas supporters – Sephardi haredim who do not
blindly replicate the practices of the Lithuanian haredim, many of whom
already serve in the IDF - are more easily integrated. The Lithuanian
and Chassidic groups pose far greater problems. Anyone who has visited
the current Israel Museum exhibition of Chassidim will readily
appreciate the awesome challenge that drafting some of these youngsters
It is a tribute to the Plesner Committee that it appreciated the
complexities involved in engaging haredim who live such closed lives and
proposed introducing changes gradually, compassionately, and employing
maximum flexibility in the initial stages.
Its recommendations included exempting 1500 outstanding Torah scholars
per annum, providing national service for those not suitable for the
military (as long as this is directed towards genuine community service
and not transformed into a new pipeline to channel funds to exclusively
haredi enterprises), and suggested deferring service for up to five
years. It also suggested that those not serving be subjected to monetary
fines and reduced social welfare payments.
The imperative to change the system extends far beyond the need to
defuse the rage at 60,000 haredi draft evaders – many of whom are not
even genuinely committed to full time Torah studies.
The fundamental issue to be resolved is the ever-growing number of
youngsters driven by anti-Zionist rabbis into believing that they should
engage in a lifetime of full time Torah study, reject earning a
livelihood and subsist on state welfare.
Degrading the concept of earning a livelihood is unprecedented in Jewish
tradition. The Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot) quotes Rabban Gamliel
saying, “Torah study is good with a worldly occupation, because the
exertion put into both of them makes one forget sin. All Torah without
work will ultimately result in desolation and will cause sinfulness”.
Unless the current perversion of the Jewish work ethic is reversed, the
inevitable outcome will be that the hordes of haredi youngsters, already
representing an impoverished underclass, will soon undermine the entire
economy and cohesiveness of the state.
In this context, the draft is crucial. Once these youngsters become
engaged in the IDF or national service, most of them will acquire
rudimentary skills enabling them to ultimately join the work force. Of
course, to create a national service which will provide them with
vocational skills and not merely employ them doing menial jobs, will in
itself represent a major challenge for the government.
In the long-term, the haredi rabbis with any understanding of the real
world, would grasp the opportunity to move forward in a constructive and
collaborative manner. The hardline opposition stems from the extreme
Lithuanian anti-Zionists – especially the Eda Haredit - many of whom
harbor hostile attitudes towards the state which nevertheless supports
and subsidizes their Yeshivot. They are not even willing to recite
prayers in their synagogues for soldiers defending them. On the other
hand, Shas supporters are unlikely to go to the barricades over this
issue as many of them share strong national sentiments.
The principal concern of the rabbis is that their students will be
exposed to the world at large and they will lose control over them.
Instead of recognizing that these reforms are inevitable and that they
will ultimately derive benefit by overcoming their existing grinding
poverty, they utterly reject such proposals, creating further social
polarization. They are not even willing to consider national service in
hospitals, schools and other welfare institutions. The insularity of
their leadership is reminiscent of their predecessors on the eve of the
Holocaust who urged their followers to remain in Europe and bitterly
opposed emigration to Palestine as being counter to the Divine will.
A minority of the more astute elements in the haredi world read the
writing on the wall. They have already initiated projects to provide
vocational training to enable haredim to become gainfully employed. Some
are even seeking to collaborate with the government to find ways of
minimizing the negative impact of these changes. In addition, haredi
voluntary participation in the IDF, whist only comprising a small
percentage, has nevertheless significantly increased over the past few
As an economist and a shrewd politician, Prime Minister Netanyahu is
aware of the urgent need to institute reforms to engage haredim in the
His reluctance to sever the long standing political nexus with haredim
is understandable, but the time is long overdue to break the
stranglehold and excessive leverage of the haredi parties.
The unity government that Netanyahu formed with Kadima provides him with
an historic opportunity to move forward and belatedly deal with these
issues which generate so much rage throughout the nation.
He is also aware that despite their threats, to where can the haredi
parties turn? To Mofaz and Kadima who imposed the change? To Israel
Beiteinu who regard the reforms as being insufficient? Or to Sheli
Yachimovich of Labor? And when these reforms are implemented, the
excessive leverage of the one-dimensional ultra-Orthodox parties will
have become substantially eroded.
I am confident that over the next few weeks - in the interests of the
nation as well as political expediency - Netanyahu will endorse a system
which will lead to the gradual recruitment of haredim into the army and
workforce. In the long-term, this will gain them the respect of the
nation and enhance their own self-esteem. Ironically, in the course of
time, most haredim will probably even appreciate what he has done for
It will also represent a turning point in which the power of religious
zealots is reversed, and a narrowing of the polarization between
religious and secular elements. Instead of being alienated by religious
extremism, Israelis will be drawn closer to the intrinsic beauty of
Jewish tradition and heritage by example rather than coercion.
This will ultimately enshrine Netanyahu’s political legacy as an Israeli
leader who, albeit under duress, did ultimately oversee changes which
unified the nation.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel