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Political Impasse: How to Punish Haredi Draft Dodgers

by Shmuel Rosner

November 17, 2013 | 8:08 am

Haredim stand atop IDF Merkava tank
Photo by Reuters

The original version of this article was published last week by the NYT, but here's a longer and slightly different version of my article on the current debate over Israel's haredi draft:

The Israeli parliament is nearing its moment of truth, when a decision on drafting ultra-Orthodox men to the military will have to be made. Yet a last minute dispute between them threatens to roll back the almost agreed upon piece of legislation and to bring about a "full scale political crisis", as a political leader involved with the legislative process told me last week. On the weekend, Minister Yaakov Perry of Yesh Atid made a similar comment- "There is a huge chasm between Yesh Atid and the Jewish Home. One of these parties will need to leave the coalition - or we will have to have new elections", the minister said. He referred mainly to differences over the Palestinian issue, but also to the debate over the draft.

The Haredi draft was one of the main reasons for the collapse of Israel's previous coalition, and is supposed to be one of the reforms (if not the major reform) passed by the current coalition. The Israeli government was forced by the courts to end an arrangement that enabled all Haredi men to avoid military service if they chose to stay in school and study the Torah. And by forming a coalition without Haredi parties, the passage of legislation that will reorganize the relations between the military and the Haredi community became politically feasible.

In this coalition two parties cooperated and were active in preparing the legislation – the Zionist-religious Habayit Hayehudi and the centrist Yesh Atid. And they are now at odds debating one last crucial component of the law. The heart of the matter, put simply, is the nature of punishment for Haredis that will still evade the draft. The legislators of Habayit Hayehudi say: economic sanctions (e.g., withdrawing housing subsidies for those who do not enlist). The legislators of Yesh Atid disagree: equality means that if you break the law you go to jail.

There are two issues at stake in this debate, which has to be resolved by the end of the month when an interim legal arrangement expires. The first issue, the punitive one, is of a technical-legal nature. The second is trickier: Do we want more haredi soldiers or do we want to insist on total equality?

The two are intertwined, of course. The original intention of all parties involved was to take the economic path, and the reason for which this is no longer the case stems from the legal advice that the committee charged with writing the legislation heard. Economic sanctions can't pass the court for many reasons, one of which obvious: if a Haredi man can dodge military service and only pay a financial fine, other Israelis would not wait long before demanding a similar arrangement.

Still, the head of the Knesset committee that is currently putting the final touches on the legislation, Ayelet Shaked of the Habayit Hayehudi party, believes that a new legal formulation will make economic sanctions viable again. Her strong opposition to criminal sanctions is the result of her striving for a bill that "will bring about recruitment of haredim and will not cause strong rabbinical resistance". She believes, like many experts do, that a gradual change in the Haredi community is already occuring, and that criminalizing Haredi behavior would only serve to embolden Haredi resistance to the draft and to change. As Reuters (as well as many other media outlets) reported not long ago: "there are signs of a growing, dispersed movement driving change inside the cloistered, and also poor, community".

Her Yesh Atid counterpart, Knesset Member Ofer Shellah, doesn't believe a new legal formulation can suddenly emerge. That's his way of making a pragmatic argument against Shaked's call for pragmatism. Wisely, he avoided a "what if" question that I tried asking him. The legal solution that enables economic sanctions is just not there, he says. He couldn't find any legal expert who believes that's legally workable. So there's the technical issue that separates the parties of the legal viability of economic sanctions.

But there also seems to be a deeper issue at work here. When the moment of decision nears, members of Habayit Hayehudi, a religious party, seem to feel uneasy with the concept of criminalizing the study of Torah. And they feel uneasy with the aggressive coercion of fellow religionists. The Yesh Atid party- while accepting in principle that gradually drafting the haredis is more reasonable than striving for total equality at once – are less sensitive to not hurting haredi feelings.

The result is one party that is trying too hard to avoid confrontation with haredi society, while the other is not making a sufficient effort to find a non-confrontational solution to the problem of proper sanctioning. And to such political tension there are two possible outcomes. The good one: they will argue until the best solution is found. And the bad one: they will argue without end, until this rare moment of opportunity for passing the law passes.

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