The coalition government government’s plan for drafting charedim should give rise to some sighs of relief, and some guarded optimism. That is not likely to happen, because it is just not the way charedim in Israel react (at least publicly), and because there are definite grounds for concern.
It could have been much worse. Hence, the sigh of relief. Non-charedi Israels were determined to address the financial burden they believe is placed upon them by a huge community that is underemployed and expanding. Something was going to happen. As one major Torah figure said (privately, of course), “After decades of treating them like garbage, we should be surprised when they want to treat us the same way?” Many feared that the plan would be draconian and counterproductive. If it went too far, it would undo all the quiet progress that has already been made providing alternatives for those who do not find it within them to spend their time in productive, full-time learning and want to enter the work-force, or serve in Tzahal. While the public rhetoric in the community strenuously opposes both, literally thousands are voting with their feet. Programs to provide academic and vocational skills to charedi men and women are booming. The charedi contingent in the army has established itself, although the government’s performance in supporting it has been lackluster. It looked like economics was already forcing change, at a rate that was likely to accelerate. If the government would go too far, it would be taken as a gezeras shmad (which is in fact what one major Israeli Rosh Yeshiva called any plan to draft any number of students) and force all charedim to resist.
This did not happen. Like the plan or not, it does show some serious thought and consideration.
Nothing much happens for four years. Immediately, there are only dark clouds on the horizon for charedim – and many privately see it as the dawning of a brighter day. This minimizes the result of immediate (and even violent) pushback.
An exception, apparently, is that even immediately, anyone over the age of 22 is free to enter the workforce, even if he did not do any army service. We can anticipate that many will take advantage of this offer, and begin the slow process of having Israeli charedim accept what many, if not enough of us, do in the States: that there is room for both learners and earners.
The plan allows future 18 yr old potential inductees some choices. Today, roughly 7000 of those who turn 18 apply for exemptions, and are given them routinely. Starting four years from now, only 1800 top learners will be exempted – but given higher stipends than they are now given! They must stay in full-time learning until age 26, or incur penalties.
Everyone else will have three options. They can join the army for two years (the term of service is being cut down to that from the present three), at higher pay than is now offered. They can opt for serious national service for the same length of time, in the police, fire, or Zaka services – all for lesser pay. They can do none of the above, and continue to learn, but incur financial penalties. So will yeshivos that keep a large percentage of non-servers on their rolls. The Nachal Charedi program will be expanded over the next years in anticipation of the four year mark to make room for two more charedi battalions, including designated training facilities.
In other words, the images we were envisioning of massive arrests won’t happen. Shirking the government demand for sharing the burden of service will not be criminalized. There will be positive inducements to serve, and negative monetary ones for failing to serve. Rather than treat learning with complete contempt (as many here must be true of a secular government), the government will show its regard for traditional Torah learning by rewarding the top 25% of learners, and support them at State expense. This was not the reaction of the Tommy Lapids and his ilk. For whatever reason, the younger Lapid has displayed more diplomacy – and more wisdom.
It could have been much worse. The community will rail against these changes. (One headline read, “Lavan bikeish laakor es hakol! Lavan = Lapid, Bennet, Netanyahu.) Having gotten used to a certain life style for almost seven decades, this should be expected. It will have four years to either undo the “gezerah” if and when the present coalition falls apart, or learn to live with it. That could mean finally conceding (as so many do privately) that many are not cut out for full-time learning. This would bring relief to much of the grinding poverty in the community, and alleviate some of the walking out of frum life by kids going off the derech because they are boxed in by one-size fits all chinuch. Alternatively, the community could decide to swallow the bitter pill and still encourage universal learning, but have to take on the increased costs of paying the fines, probably by more fund-raising trips to America. (Jimmy the Greek’s odds on the latter successfully occurring in today’s economy are not so favorable. Perhaps HKBH Himself will weigh on by turning the economy around, and allowing that possibility!)
The school issue is more ticklish from the standpoint of the extremely anti-secular community in Israel. The government is demanding two and a half hours a day of core curriculum instruction. Schools which do not provide it will now be denied funds. Again, this becomes a funding crisis rather than grounds for a holy war against the nouveau-Czarist agents set to padlock the doors of the chadorim.
Again, it could have been handled more stupidly.
Many in the States (depending on where they daven) will be hard-pressed to find these measures as objectionable as people in Israel. Many undoubtedly will join the mourning, but others will daven that these measures will be successful in solving the growing problem of poverty and the burden that the charedi community is perceived to place on unwilling Israelis. Many will look expectantly to the building of a society in which the Torah community is seen as having the best and most attractive approach to living a meaningful life, attentive to all normal human needs.
Even the most optimistic should see that significant dangers lurk ahead. Those who think the new program completely understandable should still admit the possibility that future measures might be imposed that push ever more forcefully to make Torah authority and the Torah lifestyle take a back seat relative to the demands of the State. While we should not be overly rejectionist, we cannot afford to be naïve either.
Another danger is more insidious. The choosing of the 1800 yearly exemptions may go the same way as the reaction to the hated Cantonist draft of the Czars. Some rabbonim at the time excelled in their fairness in guarding the vulnerable, like the orphan children who were targets for the khappers (kidnappers paid off by the wealthy to secure replacements for their own children to escape the draft.) Others were not effective. If Roshei Yeshiva protect their own children and sons-in-law from service, or if there is significant infighting and no objective standard in choosing the 1800 elite on the basis of merit, it will bring down the charedi world faster than any universal draft could.
We all need much siyata deShamaya in charting our reactions in the next weeks and the course in the upcoming four years.