Wednesday, Jun 12, 2024

Battle Over The Draft Heats Up

Once again, the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel finds itself in the gun-sights of the Likud-Kadima coalition which is vowing to draft the majority of yeshiva bochurim into the army. They claim this is necessary to distribute the burden of mandatory army service equally on every sector of Israel's population. Prime Minster Ben Gurion at the founding of the state recognized the need for Bnei Torah to be permitted to study unencumbered. His policy has been understood and kept in place by every Prime Minister who followed him. For days, Netanyahu seemed to be vacillating whether to side with the chareidim, the Likud's traditional coalition partners since the days of Menachem Begin, or to throw in his lot with Mofaz and the Kadima party that have blazed on their flag (in a bid to stay viable and attract votes) the mission of driving yeshivaleit from the bais hamedrash to the army's grasp.

Netanayhu had been trying to keep everyone happy, striving to remove the sharpest stings from a new comprehensive conscription law that must be passed by the end of the month by order of the Supreme Court. The previous arrangement, known as the Tal Law, was ruled illegal and ineffective and thrown out.


As recently as last week, it appeared as if Netanyahu would remain loyal to his frum supporters, when he dissolved the Plesner Committee that was advocating aggressive conscription for yeshivaleit. Netanyahu did this after Yisroel Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, and the unofficial chareidi representative, Yaakov Weinroth, stalked out of the committee in despair and disgust. Netanyahu delivered the coup de grace to a toppling ruin.


But then two storm clouds loomed. Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz threatened to quit Netanyahu’s coalition unless the committee’s resolutions were adopted, and then, on Motzoei Shabbos, floodgates of hate and resentment spilled out onto the streets of Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv in large protests demanding the drafting of yeshiva bochurim into the army.


Netanayahu zigged and zagged and when it was all over, he came down on the side of those who want to uproot yeshiva bochurim from their yeshivos and destroy limud haTorah in the way it had been practiced in yeshivos for hundreds of years.


He is making a crucial historical error, which is likely to seriously harm him and hamper his ability to govern and gain re-election the next time around.


By jettisoning all he had previously said he believed in; by joining the cavalcade against the chareidi community without any prior discussion; he broke the chain of trust and cooperation which enabled him to assume power. He resurrected the feelings that he is an inveterate back-stabber who can not be trusted, similar to the way he lost the affection of the settler community the last time he was prime minister, which led to the dissolution of his government and the ascension of the Left to lead the government.




What is a more explosive subject for Israelis than politics? Religion, of course, and here you have both combined. On Motzoei Shabbos, Israel was rocked by an outburst of protests. The largest was in central Tel Aviv, where the Camp Sucker movement catapulted its biggest show of force since its genesis six months ago. A crowd numbering from 10 to 20 thousand drawn from a dozen different organizations gathered at Tel Aviv’s Museum Plaza yelling, “One people, one draft,” and, “Barak, you promised — now live up to it.” Faces contorted in rage, voices yelled slogans, flags waved, and uplifted signs demanded, “No army — no allowance,” “Equal draft — social justice.” Anarmy of humanitarians demanded relief for the suffering of the masses.


Chairman of the National Student Union, Itzik Shmueli, challenged the Prime Minister before the crowd saying: “Netanyahu, decide — are you a politician, or a leader? Look around you — the silent majority is no longer silent. This time we won’t give up. We are not up for sale.”


Activists demanded immediate adoption of Plesner’s recommendations.


“There’s nothing to talk about — there are recommendations that need to be passed into law immediately,” they said. “We don’t need more members of the Knesset to deal with this issue — we need leaders to make a decision. Netanyahu, we are no longer suckers. We won’t accept any announcements — only actions. Tonight the Israelis who serve in the IDF, our parents, teenagers and all of us will send a clear message — there is no Tal Law 2, there is a universal draft.”


Hundreds went into the streets and ran wild, blocking Tel Aviv’s roads and burning protest signs in the streets. In Yerushalayim, hordes of demonstrators crowded downtown Yerushalayim, filling Rechov Yafo wall to wall and blocking the passage of the city’s light railway until police pushed them from the tracks.


Had the protesters been religious, it was noted, police would have put their sticks and horses to good use and newspapers would have lambasted the rioters as violent hooligans.


UTJ chairman, Yisroel Eichler, insisted that the protests were an explosion of enmity and hate.


“The organizers of the protest have proven their hate for chareidim and that their goal is not national security but to create a melting pot that will provide a new chinuch for chareidi youngsters,” he said. “The chareidi public knows very well that the secular government regards Talmud Torah and yeshiva students as the real danger to the state. The purpose of all the conscription and integration plans is to destroy chareidi chinuch and drive Torah from Yisroel. Anyone who wants equal distribution of burden should annul compulsory conscription.”


Even the Editor-in-Chief of the secular Haaretz newspaper admitted the protests were an incitement.


“The ‘reserve soldier rally’ on Motzoei Shabbos at the plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum was a demonstration of incitement against the minorities of Israeli society — the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs,” he wrote. “Those crying out ‘I am not a sucker’ are not looking to integrate these minority communities, alleviate the intergroup antagonisms, and save the Israeli economy from collapse. The protesters only want one thing that ‘the others’ also suffer and be punished for being different. The politicians that are now proposing “equality in bearing the burden” know that no equality will be achieved.”


Shocked at the unfolding scenario, Rav Ovadiah Yosef said the Torah public must storm the heavens to nullify the evil decree.


We are presently in great distress,” he said at his Motzoei Shabbos d’roshah. “People are plotting to cut down the honor of Torah, Torah study, Torah scholars, and those who toil in Torah. This is to our great sorrow for the youth of Israel only exist through the merit of the Torah. We are surrounded by enemies, Iran on one side and Hezbollah on the other. Who will save us from them? The Torah!”
In line with this, Rav Yosef instructed everyoneto recite Avinu Malkeinu twice a day:


“We must all pray to Hashem,” he said. “Everything is in His hand. From Sunday the days of Bein Hametzorim begin, from Sunday we will begin saying Avinu Malkeinu after Shacharis and Minchah and have in mind that Hashem will save us. And I ask the same of our brothers in the lands of the golus, all Jews are responsible for one another. I implore all of you to attend these tefillos and say Avinu Malkeinu every day after Shacharit and Minchah, to pray to Hashem to annul all harsh, evil decrees.”


He appealed to yeshivos to cancel the upcoming bein hazemanim.


“Study Torah, be strengthened in Torah. We will do this, and Hashem will act from above.”


MK Moshe Gafni told the media that the secular protests would now put Netanyahu to the test.


This is a test for Netanyahu and the Likud,” he said. “In the moment of truth, will he abandon his historical partners and his social loyalty towards us because of a demonstration of some 5,000 people? It could be they have already made their decision, but I am a Jew who does not lose hope.


In our community we also cry out against those who do not learn and do not serve. We also want an equal burden,” he added.When the people of Israel are in danger, they need to both study Torah and to serve in the army. Both are important. But I have not seen that they want to deny basic rights from draft dodgers who don’t learn. More and more chareidim are going out to work, acquiring professions, and serving in the army. This is done by their agreement. If they now deny civil rights to yeshiva students this will not only not help, but will put a stop to this process.”




Sunday morning Netanyahu surrendered to Mofaz’s threats, media warnings and the protests. By this time, Plesner had released his recommendations that everyone already knew from unofficial leaks. As expected, they recommended that only 1,500 “dedicated” Torah students receive exemption every annual draft. While present Israeli law exempts all Torah students whose “Torah is their profession,” the new recommendation exempts only 20 percent. Out of 7,500 yeshivaleit reaching conscription age of 18 each year, 6,000 would receive draft notices coupled with various benefits that would be annually reduced if they chose deferment for another year. At the age of 22, yeshiva students would be required to leave their studies and choose either the army or national service. Presently, only a few hundred yeshivaleit enlist each year.


The committee recommended to financially penalize yeshivos harboring those who evade the draft, and also to penalize those yeshivaleit themselves with economic penalties including cancellation of their 850 shekels monthly stipend, housing benefits and property tax breaks. The recommendation set a goal to achieve 80 percent of eligible chareidim for army or national service by 2016.


At a Likud meeting on Sunday morning, Netanyahu authorized the Plesner recommendations with two major exceptions. Contrary to Plesner’s recommendation that national service be implemented upon Arabs in stages, the Likud thought the “service for all” principle should be directed towards them straight away.


Also, the recommendation of personal fines and imposition of criminal records on yeshivaleit refusing to serve has been dropped. In general, Netanyahu has instructed to tone down the recommendations in order not to provoke the chareidim into war mode. The final product must utilize more carrot and less stick.


Speaking later at a cabinet meeting Netanyahu said, “Several months ago I said that I bring a conscription law for all to the Knesset. I said that what has been is not what will be, that regarding the issue of distribution of the public burden, the present situation cannot continue. Neither the military, nor the economy, nor society can continue on the current path.”


In light of this I concluded with Mofaz the immediate establishment of a team to draft a bill for equal burden,” he added. “I appointed the vice premier, former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon to represent us, the government. MK Plesner will be appointed representing Minister Mofaz. They will be joined when needed by representatives of the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice, [and] a representative of the civil service. The objective is to formulate a recommended bill this week, in order to bring it before the government next week.” Netanyahu emphasized that “the proposed new law will apply to everyone: secular, chareidi, Jews, Arabs, everyone.”


Netanyahu was lambasted for his flip-flopping.


“The conduct of Prime Minister Netanyahu in recent weeks is determined from newsflash to newsflash,” Opposition leader, Shelly Yechimovitz said in reaction to his flipping and flopping. “It is regrettable to see how one of the most loaded and deepest issues of the country is subject to changing whims.”


“Even an acrobat couldn’t compete with Netanyahu’s zigzags,” a UTJ politician said. “He breaks up the committee, he revives the committee, he opposes, he supports. You can’t believe a word he says. After this betrayal, we will do everything to find other political partner.”


The political partner he hinted at is Opposition leader, Shelly Yachimovitz, who has been unusually restrained during the recent controversies. Although the chareidi parties are hard put to fight against Netanyahu’s mega-coalition, they can threaten to cross the Knesset floor and help Yachimovitz win the next elections.


Following Netanyahu’s adoption of the Plesner plan, Rav Chaim Kanievski issued a letter warning that attacking Torah students is a horrific danger to Klal Yisroel.


“We tremble with fear at the news that they are coming to make laws that threaten the most precious possession of Klal Yisroel, the holy cruse of oil, the holy bnei yeshivos and avreichei kollelim. Do not endanger your souls and your lives. Know well, that the whole merit of Klal Yisroel depends on those holy bnei Torah who have nothing in their world but the four amos of halacha. It is simple and clear to every Jew since we became a nation that there is a great danger to touch the purity of the holy bnei yeshivos and introduce extraneous thoughts to them.


“Anyone who can, is obligated to protest and shout, and encourage the bnei Torah, and not the opposite, chas veshalom. Our lives depend upon it.”


On Monday night, Moshe Gafni spoke thunderously at the Knesset plenum, claiming that previous Likud prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert would never have bowed to pressure as Netanyahu did. For did not Sharon say, “No one should think I don’t know the significance and importance of the army; however, if there were no yeshivot, there would be no Jewish people.”


Imitating how Ehud Olmert would have reacted to the situation, Gafni accused Kadima of hypocrisy, “A young MK who wanted to get votes for the primaries but had no agenda adopted a line that the whole Kadima followed – to treat talmidei yeshiva like criminals. To lay criminal charges against whoever studies Torah. There was nothing like this since the days of Rome… Because surveys indicate you’ve gone down to four mandates you’re making a campaign of civil war?”


Coalition leader Ze’ev Elkin has pointed out that the battle between the chareidim and Kadima for Netanyahu’s loyalty is a fight between two competing identities. What does Israel value more, “Israel first,” or “Jewish first?” So far, Netanyahu and Likud have, to some extent, favored uniting with Kadima. However, that would mean Likud has opted for “Israel first” at expense of “Jewish first.” 


In lieu of the desperate situation, chareidi askonim are said to be organizing a giant demonstration, similar to the huge demonstration against the Supreme Court that took place some years ago. This is expected to take place in Yerushalayim on erev Rosh Chodesh Av. They are calling it the “The Million Man Demonstration against the Conscription Decree.”


Not to be outdone, the Suckers Camp organizers are also planning a demonstration for the 21st of July in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, hoping it will attract a hundred thousand participants. Camp Suckers personnel are convinced that Netanyahu can be pushed over by whoever pushes hardest.


“The Prime Minister had demonstrated that he is responsive to public pressure, or, to use harsher words, ‘jelly-spined,’” said organizer Idan Miller. “Our aim with these demonstrations is to wear him out and make him understand that the public demands equal burden. Our demonstration this week proved that we were right and Netanyahu gave in to public demands.”
“From what we know of what goes on in the Prime Minister’s office,” he added, “we are afraid he will find some way to dissolve the objectives of the commission specifically regarding the small details that alter the whole picture. So we are keeping our finger on the pulse and keeping up public pressure. This is one reason for the mass demonstration to be held at Rabin Square in two weeks.”


Meanwhile, Plesner and his team are working to finalize his recommendation by this week, hoping to have it ready for a preliminary vote on Sunday or Monday, followed by a final bill reading before the end of the month. But there may be delays. Despite Netanyahu’s exhortation to tone down the recommendations, Plesner is doing his best to keep changes to the minimum, while his partner, Moshe Ya’alon, is trying to rework the document according to Netanyahu’s specifications.




There are other dissenters in the coalition to the bill besides for Shas and UTJ. Yisroel Beiteinu emphasizes that although its members do not intend to leave the coalition, they are firm in their demand for conscription for all, chareidi and Arab 18 year olds and are formulating a bill of their own to codify that.


When Plesner officially released his recommendations, Water and Energy Minister Uzi Landau (Yisroel Beiteinu) raised his party’s oft-heard complaint that the recommendations were discriminating against the chareidim unfairly in contrast to the Arab population.


“It is strange that the enlistment of chareidim, who make up 8 percent [of those who don’t serve] is obvious, while national service by Arabs, who make up half of those who don’t serve, is seen as legitimate,” he said, adding that far more secular Jews avoid IDF service than chareidim. “Everyone should learn these numbers,” he said. “Yisroel Beiteinu will oppose any partial recommendations and all attempts to soften the blow, as Plesner and his friends did.”


Party head, Avigdor Lieberman, says he cannot see any logic in deferring the conscription of chareidim until 22 or 23, nor does he buy the Arab’s argument that they have a lesser obligation to enlist because “equal obligations should come only after equal rights.”


“I’ll tell you a secret,” he said. “How much tax does Israel take from the Arab sector and how much social insurance does it grant them? The entire tax collection from the sector, and efforts are made to conceal this, is about 600 million shekels, while direct payments of national insurance they get are 12 billion shekels, not including other grants. When we speak of obligations and rights, we must understand that the Arab sector is enjoying excessive rights and is not disadvantaged.”


A second reason the bill may not be voted in is that Netanyahu has a number of dissenters in his own camp.


Nonetheless, coalition leader Elkin is confident it will pass.


“I don’t expect problems passing it,” he said. “UTJ and Shas are sending messages to us not to count on them leaving, because they don’t want Kadima taking their portfolios. UTJ has a real case to justify leaving the coalition, because the agreement not to change the status quo on matters of religion and state has been violated — but if UTJ or Shas leave, they are making a mistake, because we will have a secular coalition.”


Elkin is confident that support from Kadima’s 28 MKs, Likud’s 27, five Independence MKs, and three MKs of Habayit Hayehudi will lead to majority of 63 out of 120. As for Kadima rebels who say they will not vote for the bill, he hopes to balance them through the support of the National Union faction.




Reports indicated that I the wake of the government threatening sanctions against bnei Torah, the Dirshu Organization announced that it will provide stipends for an additional 2,000 avreichim interested in joining its learning program which emphasizes remembering what was learned.



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