Torah parties refused to take a direct part in the committee and attorney Yaakov Weinroth has been acting as their representative. Throughout this month, the committee has been meeting three times a week, rushing to meet the deadline of submitting its recommendations by next week. In the process, the committee conducted a number of interviews to gain a clearer picture of the issues
CHAREIDIM YES, ARABS NO
Brig. Gen. Gadi Agmon, head of planning in the IDF’s Personnel Directorate, informed the Plesner Committee that the army has room for yeshiva recruits and is able to establish three extra combat battalions to accommodate yeshiva students, similar to the Nachal Chareidi battalion that already exists. He said the army was also preparing to increase the number of chareidim in the Home Front Command, and considering sending some of them to serve in the police and prison services. He said, the army will be able to absorb thousands of new recruits.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Monitoring Committee for Arab Affairs in Israel ignored invitations to send representatives to take part in the committee’s deliberations and preferred to boycott the process.
“Before we begin discussing this subject, there must be a discussion of the harm being done to the rights of Arab citizens, the incitement and the racist laws that the Knesset passes,” the Monitoring Committee stated.
Perhaps as a reaction, Deputy Attorney General, Malkiel Blass, sent a letter to the Plesner Committee with a list of instructions that included an admonition to only discuss yeshiva student conscription. “Regarding those who are not chareidim,” Blass wrote, “I would like to point out that there is no legal obligation to recommend an alternative arrangement to the one that exists.” In other words, he made clear to the committee that Arab affairs are no longer part of their agenda, contrary to what Prime Minister Netanyahu intimated when the committee was first set up.
Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman reiterated that the Torah world would continue to boycott the committee, telling Degel Hatorah MKs that, “There is nothing to discuss with them at all! There is no possibility to tell a bochur to begin learning Torah at the age of 20 or 30. Those are years that bochur must only hureveh in Torah.”
He added that the IDF is “a horrifically problematic place where there are many of the most severe Torah prohibitions” and that “we may not consider sacrificing a single bochur who wants to learn. This is not open for discussion and not subject to negotiations. This is dinei nefoshos mamosh!”
In another development, earlier this month, members of the “United Camp” (an umbrella organization of 25 bodies fighting to recruit yeshivaleit) showed the Plesner Committee documents indicating that a secret agreement was forged between Likud, Kadima, and Torah leaders during the formation of the new government coalition. According to the documents, the “Elkin Deal” was struck between coalition chairman, Ze’ev Elkin and Torah leaders, assuring that the old Tal Law would continue in a new guise.
According to the agreement, bochurim will remain free to either learn or be recruited as they please. Only recruitment goals will be upgraded.
“The Plesner Committee is one big bluff,” United Camp members claimed. “… The members of the committee are too important and busy to invest so many hours and discussions finding a solution that is actually already predetermined behind their backs and will be a continuation of the present situation.”
At the time, MK Yaakov Litzman of UTJ seemed to affirm the accusation, saying in an interview, “What is involved here is the Elkin Plan that sets no limits to exemptions and only goals for the increase of recruitment. We will not support it, but can live with it. This document was written in the coalition agreement between Kadima and Likud after it was made clear to Mofaz (leader of Kadima) that this was the goal. Therefore we see room for optimism.”
A message from the office of Shaul Mofaz did not deny the allegation outright, only complaining that people had the chutzpah to make such allegations. “The Tal Law amendment will bring to significant change in equal distribution of the public burden,” it stated. “We are sorry that various groups operating with their own agendas in the name of reservist soldiers, are busying themselves undermining the reputation of the committee instead of contributing to its work. The solution will be real and historical and the proof, as always, will be through deeds and not words.”
Later, however, Mofaz seemed to indicate the committee was working on limiting the exemptions after all, claiming that recruiting yeshiva students could lead to shorter army service for all and that surveys indicate that 70 percent of the Israeli public wants compulsory conscription for all.
“We will not compromise on the basic principle of one law for all,” he said.
MINISTERIAL SEATS IN EXCHANGE FOR YESHIVA BENCHES
UTJ chairman, MK Yisroel Eichler, claimed that the purpose of the Plesner Committee was to drive Torah parties from the government.
“Parshas Hameraglim is very relevant,” he said. “I ask the members of Yisroel Beiteinu and especially the members of Kadima – you speak to us of national unity? Currently a committee is ostensibly trying to solve the ‘problem’ that the state has survived for 64 years thanks to the merit of Torah scholars. That’s what the meraglim didn’t understand — that victory comes not through force against force, but through the spiritual against force.”
“Mofaz is afraid there might be controversy in his party because he can’t satisfy everyone. So he says, ‘Let’s make a draconian law that will force Shas and UTJ to leave the coalition. Then our people can become the ministers of the Internal Affairs, Housing, Finance, Religions, and Health ministries.”
“I call out to Shas and UTJ: Let us leave the coalition and give them all the ministerial positions, and let them allow bochurim sit and learn Torah,” he concluded.
Knesset members of UTJ gathered at the home of Yisroel Eichler to discuss the progress of the committee with its representative, attorney Yaakov Weinroth. Although no details were released, Hamishpacha Magazine claims it was told by one of the attending MKs that the prospects of the committee seem pessimistic.
“We know for certain that no good tidings will be coming from this committee,” he said. “We understand that elements there are doing everything possible to minimize the number of Torah students in Israel. Attorney Yaakov Weinroth was invited [by us] to try and put together ways and means of stopping these people’s machinations.”
The MK added that once the committee reaches its conclusions, even appealing to the Supreme Court will not help.
“We know that the Supreme Court is our enemy and there is no chance of it standing on our side. Even if a law is made that discriminates against the chareidi public, we will need to find other ways to fight back. Appealing to the Supreme Court is no option.”
Weinroth told the MKs that the committee has decided to annul various positive aspects of the disqualified Tal Law, such as its granting yeshivah students a “year of decision.” Under the old law, yeshiva students could serve for a year and return to yeshiva afterwards if they wished. The army has complained that this did nothing to increase their enlistment. Weinroth added that MK Yochanan Plesner, the head of the committee, instructed the Finance Ministry and members of the National Economic Council to suggest financial sanctions and incentives to increase recruitment of yeshiva bochurim.
At the same time, there was an unexpected development when a group of high-ranking women including two brigadier generals who served in the IDF and its auxiliary organizations warned this week that enlisting more yeshiva students may adversely effect feminine rights.
“The people’s army must not turn into the men’s army,” they warned in a letter to the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. “We must not fix one wrong by creating another. Over the last year we have been exposed to a growing number of worrisome reports of religious extremism in numerous places within the IDF. The media and women’s groups receive reports of numerous instances of exclusion of women and violation of female soldiers’ rights due to demands by external elements, and by chareidi or religious officers and soldiers.”
Last week there was a discreet meeting in the Knesset building between MKs Eli Yishai of Shas, Moshe Gafni of UTJ, Ze’ev Elkin, chairman of the coalition, and Perach Lerner, the Prime Minister’s advisor for parliamentary issues. The goal was to try to find common ground between the factions. But Elkin found it to difficult to induce the chareidim to anything definite they could agree to.
As one MK involved in the issue said, “We cannot lay down what formula would be agreeable to us. It’s like negotiating with the Palestinians. The moment you say what your limits are, it becomes the basis for negotiations. Meanwhile, we state what we won’t agree to under any circumstances and from the negative can be deduced the positive.”
Chareidi parties have made clear that if any new law tries to create exemption quotas, they will immediately leave the coalition. In defiance of their stance, at a Kadima party meeting last Monday, Shaul Mofaz said, “Eighty percent of chareidim will be enlisted every year, some to the IDF, and others to the various tracks of national service.” If the chareidim leave the government in protest this won’t bother him in the least. On the other hand, Netanyahu is interested in preserving the wide coalition and more amenable to compromise.
Last Tuesday, treasury officials presented the Plesner Committee with a draft law in the spirit of Mofaz’s stance that would grant government funding, subsidies, and tax exemptions to a small cadre of ilu’im and masmidim. The rest would lose everything. Rosh Yeshivos reportedly reacted as saying, “There is no force in the world that will pull the talmidim from the benches of Torah study.”
Later last week, Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, appeared before the committee and stated a similar vision. He insisted that despite rumors to the contrary, the military is ready to draft many yeshiva students and that his ceiling of deferment was ten percent, meaning that 90% should be drafted to the army or to national service.
At the same time, in a surprising statement, MK Uri Ariel (National Unity) said that religious Zionists will work together with chareidim in opposing alterations to the Tal Law.
“We are creating a front made up of Shas, United Torah Judaism and the National Union on this matter,” he said in an interview with Radio Kol Chai. “We, too, have problems with the Hesder yeshivas: there is intent to cause them harm as well. We will sit down and try to establish a unified view soon.”
Whether anything practical results from his promises remains to be seen.
This week, it was reported that despite its refusal to do anything that smacks of army service, the Arab community does not want to be viewed as parasitical appendage to Israeli society. The Council of Arab Mayors is interested in expanding existing volunteer programs in the Arab community so long as they are not connected with the military.
“We adamantly oppose national or civilian service in its current format, as a program created in the Defense Ministry that represents an alternative to military service, and reject any attempt to legislate mandatory universal service, because civil rights cannot be linked to what are defined as the duties of Israel’s Arab citizens,” said Nazareth Mayor and council chairman Ramez Jerayssi.
“That violates the foundations of democracy, which is why we are proposing an alternative that will be acceptable to everyone.”
On Monday, the Eidah Hachareidis of Yerushalayim organized a giant, early morning protest attended by about ten thousand men, women, and children.
“This will be an uncompromising war against the enlistment of yeshiva students,” an Eidah representative said in advance of the protest. “What can the army do? Throw us all into prison? We will not enlist and not compromise by doing national service, which our rabbonim have also forbidden.”
At 4:45 a.m., the area next to the Eidah building at Kikar Shabbos, and its adjacent streets became black as an estimated 10,000 men, women and children came to take part. The protest began with the recital of Tehillim and Selichos. 1,500 sets of sack and ashes were distributed among the crowd. Torah dignitaries attending included the Ga’avad of the Eida, Rav Tuviah Weiss, Rav Shmuel Auerbach, the Ra’avad Rav Moshe Sternbuch, and the Rosh Yeshiva of Porat Yosef, Rav Moshe Tzadka.
The Ga’avad of the Eidah, Rav Tuviah Weiss, said, “The yeshivos are the lighthouses of Judaism and will not allow them to take avreichim to the army or to police service. For two thousand years we have strode in the path of Torah and we will not succumb. We will not sell the Torah for money. We must preserve the chinuch of our children with no alterations.”
Rav Moshe Sternbuch said, “Only through the zechus of Torah do we have shemirah in Eretz Yisroel… We are the true soldiers of Klal Yisroel.”
Rav Shmuel Auerbach spoke of how gedolim of previous generations fought with all their strength against such decrees.
“This is an eis la’asos Lashem,” he said. “At the founding of the state, the Chazon Ish said immediately that regarding all their decrees, the nature of a Jew is to be yehareg ve’al ya’avor mamash, to actually give up one’s life rather than succumb… I was present when people told the Chebiner Rov that some Chassidim from the Sha’arei Chesed neighborhood were speaking of this [enlisting] and his face went white as a sheet… He said, ‘If they harm the heart of Judaism, there will be nothing left.’ …If Rav Sholom Yosef Elyashiv, may he have a refu’ah shleimah, was well, no one would dare to make the slightest suggestion to cool our position… We are certain that with Hashem’s help the decrees will be annulled. If we are strong, our erring brothers will also understand that such a thing is impossible, it cannot be. Klal Yisroel only exist with the merit of Torah.”
That same day, the United Camp that is fighting for yeshiva conscription announced it would be renewing its “Sucker Camp” in Tel Aviv in preparation for the conclusion of the Plesner Committee deliberations next week.
“The public will no longer tolerate the government’s sluggishness in face of the ultra-Orthodox parties and any more delay,” one leader said. “We strongly condemn the voices heard in the coalition and the Plesner Committee of the possibility of a solution without conscription, and attemps to pass a second Tal Law.”
What conclusion will the Plesner Committee present to the government next week and will it lead to a coalition crisis? All we know is that we have nothing to rely upon except Avinu shabashomayim. May the zechus of Torah and tefillah defeat the plots of those who seek to stifle the voice of our batei medrash.