Speak to Bnei Brak

The order of the day is not to shell the ultra-Orthodox, but rather to engage in a dialogue with those who live there.

A young video editor who did not serve in the Israel Defense Forces pitched a protest tent on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard on July 14 of last year. Twelve months later, the protest movement that was sparked by her act has been transformed into a protest against Israelis who do not do their army service. Video editor Daphni Leef and her colleagues could not have imagined that this would be the result of their rebellion.

Granted, even last summer, the question was being raised over whether the awakened middle-class rage would be directed toward the super-rich, or West Bank settlers, or the ultra-Orthodox. But few would have expected that less than a year later, there would be such a clear and resounding answer. We are currently seeing how the brouhaha over those in business suits has turned into a brouhaha over those wearing Haredi fedoras and sidecurls. The hope for social solidarity is being exchanged for the traditional stoning of the devout among us. The gun turrets of the revolution have been repositioned, and are now shelling the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak.

In a certain respect, the assault on the Haredi world is justified. Sixty-four years after the founding of this country, it is unacceptable that it is being defended by only a portion of its young men. It is unacceptable that the growing Haredi minority does not bear this burden and is also not a partner in developing and defending the country. For their own sakes and for the sake of their secular counterparts, the ultra-Orthodox must gradually leave the ghetto and slowly integrate into the society in which they are living.

The truth, however, is that over the past several years, that integration has already begun. The truth is that the number of Haredim serving in the army, attending college and integrating into the workforce is growing. A quiet and undeclared revolution has been taking place over the past decade in the Haredi community. There is therefore no apparent reason to furiously attack them now, of all times. All that has to be done is to act intelligently to support and accelerate the process of their integration into the Israeli army, the Israeli economy and Israeli society.

A broad coalition of naive idealists and sophisticated interested parties are what turned the anti-capitalist rebellion of the summer of 2011 into the anti-religious battle of the summer of 2012. Reserve soldiers cracking under the load they are bearing and politicians who never carried the load have made common cause this year to demand full military service now.

But this understandable demand could become a double-edged sword. Haste makes waste, and those who overreach in this instance will end up with nothing. If the pressure exerted on a Haredi community is too sudden and heavy-handed, the community will retreat inward. If the feeling in Bnei Brak is that they are under fire, they will fight back. As Prof. Yedidia Stern warns in Thursday's Haaretz, the result could be retreat rather than moving forward. If the aspiration for civil solidarity is replaced by civil war, Israeli society will tear itself to pieces.

Two people are at the center of how decisions will be made on this issue: Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz and his party colleague Yohanan Plesner. Unlike all kinds of hangers-on, Mofaz and Plesner are the ones who brought about the breakthrough in reconfiguring relations between secular and Haredi Israelis. Mofaz placed the issue front and center in the agenda of the current unity government; Plesner, as head of a committee looking at the state's conscription policy, wrote the military service equivalent of the Trajtenberg Committee's socioeconomic policy recommendations.

It is actually much-maligned Kadima that has become the party that has translated the desire for change into a serious, well-presented proposal for change. The party has also backed it with real political power and legitimate political threats.

It is now clear that on a number of matters, Plesner's plan is far-reaching. The ideas that are at its core are correct, but it is not sufficiently attentive to the needs and sensitivities, and the internal structure, of the human community that it is about to change from the ground-up. Therefore, as this decisive week comes to an end, Mofaz and Plesner would do well not to lend an ear to the secular populism that is spurring them on to be real men. If they give heed to this populism, it will be their undoing.

Instead the leaders of Kadima should focus on the issue itself. If they agree to soften Plesner's blueprint, and come up with a proposal with which the Haredim can live, they will have accomplished something historic. The order of the day is not to shell Bnei Brak, but rather to engage in a dialogue with those who live there.