Sanctions or Machinations? |

Reading Between the Lines of Israel's Move to Criminalize Haredi Draft Dodgers

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When a Knesset Committee on military draft reform votes to make it a crime for ultra-Orthodox Jews to refuse to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, do they really mean it?

The buzzword on this bill is “criminal sanctions,” but is there such a thing? Does it mean something real, serving as an actual deterrent, or is it just an ordinary set of vowels and consonants?

Many politicians – from MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) to MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) – want the public to think that the agreement achieved under the aegis of the prime minister, to the effect that there really will be criminal sanctions, even if not immediately, is a critical moment in the history of government and governance in Israel. Shelah wants the public to know that Yesh Atid defeated the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), and Eichler wants to flaunt the same message, but with the addition of “gevalt!”

Here’s the truth: The discussion of sanctions is a political exaggeration being inflated by politicians, since the draft law itself, which is being formulated in the Shaked Committee, headed by MK Ayelet Shaked, is constructed like a safety net affording protection from all sanctions, criminal and economic alike. The story lies in the conscription target figures, and these remain very amorphous.

Sanctions? Not so fast, and that’s happening largely thanks to the quiet lobbying and the sophisticated deals that three MKs from the Haredi factions succeeded in cooking up during the last Knesset session with Habayit Hayehudi’s Shaked, who has recently become the darling of the Haredi sector.

Haredi MKs Meir Porush and Moshe Gafni (UTJ) and Ariel Atias (Shas) decided yesterday to end their participation in the Shaked Committee. They didn’t achieve everything they wanted, but they have no cause for complaint. You have to know how to leave in time, and the three proved that when the Haredim are on the court it’s a whole different ball game. That’s true even when the Haredi factions are in the opposition.

Atias, Porush, and Gafni took political risks when they decided to join the Shaked Committee. As we recall, the Haredim did not participate in major forums that tried to solve the problem of “his Torah is his profession” – such as the Plesner Committee in the previous government and the Perry Committee in the present one. They learned that when the Haredim are absent – as for example from most of the proceedings in the High Court of Justice in recent years regarding the future of military service and Haredi education – the damage to their interests is greater.

Thanks to the involvement of the Haredim and the intensive dialogue with Shaked, including discussions between her and rabbis, no Haredi in Israel will be conscripted against his will. That’s true mainly of the core of Haredi society: the Hasidim, the Lithuanians and the Sephardi elite. This law, if the government is capable of passing it, “endangers” mainly the Haredi social periphery – Chabadniks, those who have left religion, the newly religious, those belonging to the national religious camp who join Haredi society.

The Haredim have received a rare political asset: They chalked up a major achievement, and can also portray themselves as underdogs decrying the fact that Torah scholars will be sent to prison. Now their dilemma will be whether to send a Haredi protest into the streets, and with how much force. Although it would strengthen their camp, it is also liable to play right into the hands of Yesh Atid.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz with MK Ayelet Shaked.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
A Nahal Haredi soldier. A main stumbling block has been the issue of joint army service with women.Credit: Alex Levac

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