Report on ultra-Orthodox Enlistment to IDF Could Tear Israel Apart, Expert Says

Prof. Yedidia Stern, a member of the state-sanctioned Plesner committee on Haredi service, says current wording of report did more to alienated Haredim than to integrate them into society.

Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit

Prof. Yedidia Stern has a nightmare. He fears the coming weeks will tear Israeli society apart, as Rabin's murder did. Stern sees hate-filled demonstrations of tens of thousands of people and terror-stricken rallies of hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men. He also sees mass ceremonies featuring the tearing up of identity cards.

Since Rabin's murder, the law professor changed direction from dealing with corporate mergers to attempting to merge Israel's various tribes into one society, sustaining one Jewish democratic state.

This is why the vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute became a prominent member of the Plesner committee. This is also why at the beginning of the week he wanted to speak to me urgently.

"Plesner is intelligent, serious, hard-working and persistent," says Stern. "But the report he composed after the committee was disbanded goes too far, too forcefully. Its current version could aggravate the problem it is intended to solve."

Stern is afraid the Plesner report could bring us to a harsh internal confrontation.

"As Israelis, we must define our goals clearly," says Stern, in his small room at the institute, located in Jerusalem's Talbiya neighborhood. "One important goal is equality in distributing the burden. Another is integrating ultra-Orthodox people into Israel's economy. But the most important goal is integrating them into society. We must enable the development of an ultra-Orthodox Israeli who is not necessarily Zionist by ideology, but is part of Israeli society."

"The new Haredi-Israeli can feel solidarity with Israeli society without losing his separate identity. He will be part of the national sovereign experience without losing his faith and endangering his community. The main path to reaching this goal is through military service. If the Haredim treat the IDF as they do Zaka [a largely Haredi organization that gathers remains of the dead for burial] and Yad Sarah [an Orthodox-run charity] - we will have made a difference. If IDF uniforms hang on clothes lines in Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit and Ramat Beit Shemesh - Israel will be a different place," he says.

"The ultra-Orthodox are brothers in an important counter-culture. They need and are entitled to recognition, protection and the ability to thrive," says Stern. "On the other hand, we can't let them take over the public space, public money and the Israeli narrative. To achieve the right balance between these goals we must integrate them into the social fabric while creating solidarity based on mutual respect. We must not hate them, degrade them or belittle ourselves before them. ... We must make them part of the military service experience in a measured way that doesn't undermine the foundations of their existence."

Once the High Court of Justice has had its say (striking down the Tal Law ) we must accept its ruling. The Plesner committee had to draft the plan for the ultra-Orthodox community's integration into Israeli society, he says.

Enlisting Haredi men at age 18 could endanger their identity, evoke sweeping resistance and ignite a culture war, says Stern. By contrast, at age 22 they are married yeshiva graduates, deeply anchored in their way of life. Their recruitment will not cause the major yeshivas' collapse nor undermine the Haredi world. This was a balanced, far-seeing decision. True, it will cost more, but the social proceeds are much higher, he adds.

"The report's decisions reflected a resolve to recruit them with respect, and treated Torah study as one of the elements shaping Israel's identity as a Jewish state," said Stern. "They also reflected Israel's values as a liberal state that does not use force to change its citizens' identity."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received bad advice from someone and disbanded the committee, he continues. This was an error that harmed Netanyahu's chances of reaching an agreed solution. It created a crisis in which Plesner had no choice but to complete the report himself. But when he did so - in two days - he went too far, setting an 80 percent draft goal and a quota of 1,500 draft-exempt yeshiva prodigies, he says. Stern believes 80 percent is too ambitious and the 1,500 quota is problematic.

He vehemently objects to including Arabs in the report, insisting their case is not similar to the Haredim's. He fears that if rightist populism forces the cabinet to deal hastily with the Arabs' draft, the results will be disastrous.

But as far as the Haredim are concerned, Stern is afraid of missing a historic opportunity.

If we don't proceed wisely, he says, instead of marching forward slowly, we will slide rapidly backward.

"In a divided society like ours, no side must win too much. So the Plesner report must be softened," he says. "If Netanyahu, [Vice Prime Minister Moshe] Ya'alon and [Vice Prime Minister Shaul] Mofaz act moderately and judiciously ... they have a chance to make a historical change. But if they give in to the radicals and populists, they might miss a unique opportunity and tear Israeli society apart."

Ultra-Orthodox protest against Haredi enlistment in the IDF, Jerusalem. Credit: Shiran Granot
Yedidia Stern. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to disband the Plesner Committee was ill-advised, he said.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkowitz