Sunday, July 08, 2012

Mandatory Conscription - The Plesner Report

I don’t know what the future holds for the Charedi community in terms of army service. But after a historic vote in the Kenesset this morning things may never be the same. The Plesner Committee was charged with coming up with ideas on restructuring Israel’s compulsory conscription laws to make them evenhanded. It has apparently done exactly that. Members of the Likud faction of the Kenesset have approved the Plesner Committee report stating there should no longer be automatic exemptions to Charedim who study full time in Yeshivos.  From World Jewish, here is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction: 
“The new bill must change reality, gradually increase the number of those who serve and be handled responsibly to maintain national unity”
I fully understand those who serve and their families. Everyone must share the burden. We shall give positive incentives to those who serve and negative ones to those who evade draft. Draft dodgers will not receive the same as those who serve. We are doing this 64 years after the issue wasn't handled properly. This is a historic change.” 
There is no question that this upset the Charedi establishment. The fact that they have had a mass rally recently protesting that possibility has made this obvious. Not that it wasn’t already obvious. Venomous comments from Charedi politicians about drafting Charedi students abound. Nor is it news that Charedi rabbinic leaders have been strongly opposed to the draft from the very beginning.

On the other side of the coin last night there was also a protest by 35,000 veterans of the IDF who said they no longer want to be ‘suckers’  for submitting to the draft while Charedim get out of it. Both sides are very passionate.

For me this is an issue of basic fairness. In that sense Israel has 2 optiopns:

Option 1) An all volunteer army. Which I happen to believe is the best of all possible worlds and  is quite do-able.  I believe that there are probably more than enough people who will volunteer for combat duty. That is the only real military that is needed. All the other work done by soldiers can be done by the civilian population.  Why must a desk job for example be performed only by a member of the military?

Option 2) Mandatory conscription - with no exemptions. Everyone has to register and be subject to military service.  There should be no single class that is exempt from military service.  All able bodied young men must be treated the same.

What is ever present in my mind is that of the bereaved Chiloni or Religious Zionist mother who either lost a son in combat or whose son has suffered a permanent injury during combat. How can any Charedi mother justify her son never being subject to those same dangers because of his exemption?

Charedim have always said that the Torah study of their boys is of equal or greater value in protecting the country than the army. They will also point to the fact that many Charedi Yeshiva students have said copious amount of Tehilim during wartime periods. Surely that say this is of equal if not greater importance. It is all in God’s hands after all. So of course their prayers are important.

Part of the problem with that is that is all done on a voluntary basis. And there is ample evidence that many do not do anything extra. In the last war the battles took place during the vacation periods of Yeshiva students. More than a few just took their family vacations then. The Chiloni and RZ citizens could not opt for vacations. They were called up to fight in dangerous battles. How does any normal person justify such a scenario?

I’m not even going to argue whether Limud HaTorah and prayer is of equal importance to combat army service. I grant them this point.  This does not change the fundamentally unfair equation. While there are Charedi boys who will say Tehilim late into the night during war time, they are not in battle. They are not facing a barrage of bullets. They are safe in their Batei Midrashim – being protected by Chiloni and RZ soldiers who are putting themselves in harm’s way. There is no way to justify that.  How would they feel if the tables were turned? Let the Religious Zionists say Tehilim and the Charedim do combat!

One of the things Charedim say to defend their opposition to the draft is that the army is no place for a religious Jew. The environment is not conducive for maintaining a high standard of religious observance. In fact the claim is made that the opposite is true, that the army is determined to disabuse Charedim of religious observance. It is also true that the army is the great equalizer. They take young men from all walks of life and turn them into soldiers. And there have been cases of anti religious bias in service to that goal from time to time.

But as an overall anti religious policy - the refutation of this is the Hesder Yeshiva. Outside of a few isolated cases -I do not recall their religious observance to have ever been an issue in their entire over sixty year history.  Hesder boys have a history of religious commitment and at the same time their army service has always been exemplary – offering the finest of fighting men who often volunteer in groups for the most dangerous combat assignments.

Nonetheless  if there is even a shred of truth to discrimination against religious Jews of any stripe it must stop. If there is going to be a universal draft – full religious accommodation must be a part of it. To that extent, the military should not draft a single Charedi Jew until the army infrastructure is in place to assure those religious rights. But no time should be wasted in its implementation.

To a minor extent, this has already been done in the form of Nachal Charedi and Shachar.  Both of these programs are designed to accommodate Charedi religious stringencies. That is only fair. These program needs to be extended to accommodate every single Charedi who will now be drafted. Furthermore there has to be oversight to assure that things run as they are supposed to. It has been reported that in some cases officers in charge of these programs were not fully living up to their obligations. Violations by officers who find ways to undermine religious observances ought to be prosecuted. No Charedi should ever again be able to say that their people aren’t being given what they were promised.

There is another internal issue that Charedi rabbinic leadership cannot argue as a matter of basic fairness.  But it may actually be the most important reason for their opposition. It is the paradigm of a full time learning program for all men. They fear that the draft would destroy that paradigm. They fear that the Yeshiva system as they know it will end.

As it stands now tens of thousands of young men are exempt from army service by sitting in the Beis HaMedrash. The quality of their learning varies all the way from Hasmada Rabba - to a great deal of slacking off. The majority are somewhere in the middle of those 2 extremes. Although I would add that most of this middle are serious about their Torah studies there is probably a sizable minority that are not. If there is a draft they fear that the majority of those who serve will never come back. They will opt for the workplace. That will cut their numbers substantially. 

But for me this is a good thing. Those that truly love learning Torah and are good at it, will return to it. Those who opt for work will show that that is what they actaully prefer. That can still be Koveiah Itim but they will now be better able to support their families. The quality of Torah learning will therefore go up substantially as only the best and the brightest will be doing so full time.

Exemptions and deferments can be handled on an individual basis. No entire class of people should be exempted.  Details can be worked out by the defense ministry, the Charedi establishment, the academic establishment and other vital service establishments.  
This way the military burden will be shared equally by all. Everyone will be subject to the same rules. I truly believe that a lot of the animosity that exist between Charedim, Chilonim, and Religious Zioinists will subside and eventually disappear.