Two months ago, I was standing beside MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) at a conference held in Jerusalem, when he was suddenly approached by an ultra-Orthodox man who declared with confidence: "Your committee will be struck down - nothing will come of it." I didn't know who this person was at first, but after a short inquiry I was surprised to find out he was the mayor of Modi'in Ilit, Yaakov Gutterman.
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My surprise came from the fact that, of all places, Modi'in Ilit has several ongoing projects, supported by Gutterman, that were designed to encourage and assist Haredi men in finding employment. I assumed that if Gutterman was in favor of Haredi employment, he would also support extending their amalgamation into other spheres of life in Israel. Was this naive thinking on my part? Definitely.
Plesner also seems to have been naive in taking on the chairmanship of the potentially explosive committee tasked with replacing the law governing Haredi enlistment. Several prime ministers, defense ministers and various branches of the legal system have, over the years, struggled with the issue of deferring conscription for men in the Haredi sector. At the moment of truth, they all buckled, allowing the problem to grow to its present, intolerable dimensions.
When the state was founded, the number of exemptions from military service given to the Haredi community stood at 400. The current number is close to 54,000, and is increasing each year. This year, the number actually dropped from 63,000 to 54,000, but this was only because the age of exemption was changed from from 35 to 28. When one examines the growing number of deferrals over the years - and takes into consideration the fact that successive prime ministers always kicked the can down the road - one can understand Gutterman's confidence in saying that nothing will come of the latest committee.
Even so, Plesner has done a great service by taking on this issue. There are some things that must be done even in the face of a prime minister who is opposed to change, and who prefers to look after the interests of his coalition partners at the expense of the interests of the greater public.
This broader interest is of concern to all citizens, not only the secular ones, since the induction of Haredi men into military and public service is key to their inclusion in a broader spectrum of national life, mainly in the workforce.
The head of the Knesset Finances Committee, MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ), said in a private conversation this week that he has no interest in the Haredi community blending into civil society in Israel, since this will have a negative influence on the community. His positions reflect some confusion within the Haredi community itself.
On one hand, as the chairman of the Finances Committee, he supports the funding of training colleges for Haredi men (there are already 10 of these ), while on the other hand he has declared that he would never set foot in one of these institutions. Gafni explains that the whole process of merging the Haredi community into the Israeli mainstream is happening too rapidly, thereby "spoiling" the community.
This line of reasoning is odd. Does their merging into the Knesset and government - for example, Gafni himself heading the Finances Committee - not lead to the same harmful effects? Gafni dismisses this paradox with a smile, saying that "I am already spoiled."
The whole issue of damage to the Haredi community is a cultural one which cannot be judged from a secular point of view, or even from the standpoint of the religious Zionist camp. The isolationist trend among Haredi groups is also common within that camp itself, as illustrated by the separation between the Hasidic groups, the Lithuanian groups and the Sephardic Orthodox.
What is seen by the Haredi sector as a potential attrition of their community is viewed by the rest of civil society as a potential blessing.
The whole issue of deferring enlistment is not a matter of national security, although the army does emphasize that it needs the additional Haredi men in its ranks. It is also not of major economic impact yet, although the growing numbers of shirkers, with the attendant unemployment rates of men who have not served in the military, will only exacerbate these issues in the coming years.
The main problem with Haredi men avoiding conscription is the grossly unequal distribution of the national burden. Their enlistment can ameliorate this inequality in sharing the burden of defending the country. More men in each unit could perhaps result in a shortening of service, or even in fewer hours of guard duty or more hands for carrying stretchers during training.
The growing feeling of many who do serve that they are "suckers" should not be scoffed at. It should not be taken for granted that so many young men do their military service. Those who serve should be respected, and this should translate into ceasing the widespread exemptions.
There are many other aspects of the way the security burden is distributed that can harm Haredi men and even Arab citizens who are exempt from military duty. One way to encourage a more equal distribution of national duties is through legislation which would formally give an employment advantage to those who have done national service or military duty (in any case, many employers prefer hiring employees with a background and experience similar to their own ).
The unjust and unequal sharing of the burden of military duty over the years is one of the reasons that those who have been carrying this burden for so long have arranged for themselves such cushy retirement packages, including receiving pensions from the age of 40. The obligations of the state to pay out defined benefit pensions to retirees from the military complex amount to a staggering NIS 260 billion, an amount that is growing by billions of shekels a year.
In one of his zigzagging comments on the topic, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared last week that those who shirk their duty will not receive the same benefits as those who fulfill it. This principle also applies to those who serve as career military personnel until the age of 40 - who receive generous pensions for life, unlike those who serve for shorter periods.
The average citizen has somehow adjusted to the distorted reality in which a large segment of the population, namely Haredi men, evades the draft, while another segment enjoys unheard of, excessive benefits. These somehow cancel each other out in the balance sheet of benefits and exemptions, but in fact greatly harm the general population that serves in the regular and reserve military. Whoever accepts special treatment of one group is bound to live with special benefits to a growing number of other groups, at the expense of all other citizens who are not well-connected and not associated with lobbies and powerful groups in the national arena.