Will Israel Be Able to Peacefully Draft the ultra-Orthodox?

It's clear that without quiet understandings and compromises, it will be difficult to increase the number of Haredi recruits.

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The publication of details Monday about contact between ultra-Orthodox leaders and Israel Defense Forces representatives has revealed what both sides have kept under wraps until now: Despite the uncompromising public rhetoric of the ultra-Orthodox camp, behind the scenes there is a clandestine channel of communication designed to neutralize the minefields as much as possible.

This coming year will be critical in terms of manpower policy in the army. Many issues on which the government has avoided a decision for years can no longer be postponed. These decisions will shape the IDF for at least a decade.

The army is beginning a massive process of dismissing about 5,000 professional soldiers (who will be replaced by about 1,000 younger soldiers in the standing army). In addition, the percentage of women exempted from service (42.6 percent in 2013) will grow to dimensions that will longer enable the government to hide behind the cliche that this is a “people’s army.” And growing public criticism is forcing the army to begin, belatedly and hesitantly, an effort to raise the unacceptably low salaries of conscripts.

But the biggest question still surrounds Haredi conscription. In a week from now, the committee headed by MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) is supposed to begin voting on the new conscription law. We can assume that any version approved by the committee will not be acceptable to the Haredim, and that in any case there will be a major protest designed to bring hundreds of thousands of demonstrators out to the street. But while the rabbis and MKs are revving up their engines prior to the confrontation, it turns out that some of them are also thinking about the day after and trying to reach specific understandings with the army.

These contacts did not begin last month. About five years ago, during the term of the previous chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF initiated a significant increase in the conscription of Haredim, in the context of special programs designed to absorb them. This project, which led to an annual increase in Haredi conscription, from 288 in 2007 to about 2,000 last year, would not have achieved momentum without intensive coordination between the army and the rabbis. There were, of course, leading rabbis who were totally opposed to the move, but others encouraged the conscription of young men who realized that they could not remain in the yeshiva world.

The present dispute surrounding the draft intensifies the already existing split in the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox camp, between Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach. In talks whose recordings were leaked earlier this week, the followers of Shteinman, whose approach to conscription seems to be less negative and vehement than Auerbach’s, report on their conversations with Shaked and Brig. Gen. Gadi Agmon, who heads the IDF planning and personnel directorate and is coordinating the army’s work in this area.

Shteinman’s group is apparently willing to reach understandings with the army about issues such as how yeshiva students will report to the induction base. Auerbach’s group preaches to the students not to respond to any order issued by the IDF.

The recordings indicate that at least as far as Shteinman is concerned, there is a basis for discussion with the army authorities, and opposition to conscription is not as absolute and sweeping as presented by ultra-Orthodox MKs. The question will be whether Shteinman can maintain the more conciliatory policy after these conversations are publicized and will probably lead to criticism of him within the Haredi camp.

The IDF is not interested in adding fuel to this fire. But it must continue to conduct itself properly during the long months when the legislative work is slowly proceeding. The army will do so in order to maintain open channels with those rabbis who agree to the change, to try to offer conditions that could ease the absorption of Haredi conscripts, and to try to remove some of the resistance of the more extreme groups. It is clear that without quiet understandings, and compromises such as opening a facility with a special induction process for Haredim (without the presence of women) at the induction base, it will be difficult to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts.

Although the proceedings of the Shaked committee are not sticking to the original timetable (initially they had planned to finish drafting the law by the end of 2013), the army is cautiously optimistic about the chances of implementing the law after it is passed. It is possible that in the end, after the wave of protest, routine needs will increase and some of the rabbis will try to formulate additional quiet understandings with the military instead of clashing with it.

But until that happens, we can expect a predictable ritual: political debate in the Knesset, protest in the streets and cries of woe by rabbis. Only after that ends will we be able to tell whether the law will lead to an increase in the number of Haredi conscripts without the government’s having to resort to coercion or punitive measures.

An ultra-Orthodox soldier in the field.Credit: Alex Levac

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