Friday, March 14, 2014

Reality Check - Criminalizing Charedi Draft Resistors

Potential criminals
I didn’t think it could any worse. But when I read how R’ Aharon Leib Shteinman reacted to new legislation that no longer automatically exempts all Yeshiva students from army service and instead criminalizes Charedi resistors, I realized I was wrong. It could. And it did. From Failed Messiah this is what he is quoted as saying about those responsible for passage of this law: 
God will help us that in the near future, they should go to geihinom [hell] where they should suffer [hellfire] and be totally annihilated. There should be no memory left of them, may their names and their memories be blotted out.
“We will ask God to help us that they should not, God forbid, be successful in carrying out what they have decreed on the Jewish people in general and, specifically, against those who are engaged in Torah study who may now be facing criminal charges [for draft dodging]…
“In our days, where the descendants of Amalek [the biblical archenemy of the Jewish people who Jews are forever commanded to wipe out] are threatening to overcome us, it is clear that this is the work of the devil.  
These comments are breathtaking. Especially when one considers who said them. Rav Shteinman is considered by many to be the Gadol HaDor. One of his signature characteristics is his moderate approach to issues of the day. That approach has caused him much grief, including being physically attacked for not at first being strident enough in his opposition to this draft law as it was being debated in the Kenesset.

That moderation came to an end 2 weeks ago when it was made clear that Yeshiva students who resisted army service would be considered criminals with an attendant jail sentence. Gone was his mild manner and out came the anger. He did a 180 and called for a massive outdoor prayer rally. Now that the law has passed, he is using language that I never believed would come out of his mouth. He compared the legislators responsible for this law  to Amalek. 

Amalek is a nation that is considered to be the arch enemy of the Jewish people. They are literally out to destroy us as Jews. We are therefore biblically commanded to obliterate even their memory. And we do so every year on a Shabbos called Parshas Zachor which is this Shabbos.

To compare observant Jews, like MKs R’ Dov Lipman and R’ Shai Piron (who both voted for this bill) to Amalek is bad enough. But when someone as revered and as mild mannered as R’Shteinman damns them to hell…. Well it’s just plain depressing.

I have a lot of respect for R’ Shteinman and I do not take his words lightly.  He is a man of principle who  tells it like it is and doesn’t care where the chips may fall. If he thinks a cause is right he will say so no matter how unpopular that cause may be even among his own people or how it will affect him personally. He is a man of great courage even at his advanced age of 100.

As I have said many times, I do not see things the way R’ Shteinman does on this issue.  But I understand and appreciate R’ Shteinman’s views and his outrage. But damning Frum people to hell?!

I can only conclude that he is so pained by what is happening in his world that he could not restrain his frustration and anger. So he lashed out. He is after all human and subject to human emotion, just like every one else. I don’t think he means for a moment that Rabbis Lipman and Piron should be condemned to hell. It was his pain talking.

This factor is one that I did not really speak to in my support for this new legislation. Even though I still support it in principle, I’m not so sure that it was the wisest decision by the government to criminalize Charedi resistance to the point of requiring jail time. I still believe that the fairest way to apply the draft law is to apply it equally to everyone. Jail time for all or jail time for none. But one has to look at the practical consequences and see if this is the best solution for the country.

As I have said in the past. I do not see the police going into a major Yeshiva and rounding up hundreds of students while they are studying Torah and throwing them in jail. This is just not happening. Not now. Not ever. So in a practical sense making this a feature of the draft law only serves to exacerbate the enmity between Charedim and non Charedim. Any chance for compromise is gone. Now it is a war.  

That makes me wonder whether – fair or not – what does the general Israeli public think. The Charedi world is too large to treat en masse as criminals. Do they believe that making Charedi draft resistors subject to the same criminal penalties they are was a wise move - fair though it may be? 

How does the mother of a son subject to be put in harm’s way from a pool of drafted soldiers feel about it? That question should be put to the test. I don’t know how the general public feels about it. But IF in light of all these considerations the public would be satisfied with a financial rather then criminal penalty for Charedi draft resistance, than that would have been the right thing to do.

We could have then avoided all of this anger and resentment.  There seems to have been a general consensus - even among Charedi leaders privately – that the draft  legislation was something they could live with if it had not included criminal penalties. The benefits of such a bill to both sides are many.

Among other things - it would free up tens of thousands of Charedim now to go to work free of any obligation to serve.  Future quotas it seems would likely be met - without disturbing the status quo too much. Job training would be made available to Charedi draftees an unprecedented way. Among those Charedim that would be drafted - many will have the option to do non military national service. And even those who end up in military units will be accommodated for their Charedi lifestyles, which will even allow them time to learn Torah while in service.

It would be a win/win for everybody. Charedim would contribute more both in terms of sharing the burden and in terms of getting trained for the workforce. That would help alleviate the poverty so many Charedim suffer and at the same time contribute to the economy.

But with a jail sentence looming over their heads, fair or not, Charedim accept none of it. Their anger has come fast and furious. I think cooler head should have prevailed. Mandating a jail sentence that will never be implemented has driven the wedge so deep, I’m not sure things can ever return to the way they were. As things stand now, I’m afraid to think what this will bring.