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Wednesday, February 27, 2013 

When Yeshiva registration serves as an excuse for draft dodging

Whether or not the Haredi parties will be in the coalition, based on this Forward article, there's no telling if any serious change will occur overnight. But it does raise an interesting issue about whether the would-be yeshiva students are really dedicated to their studies or whether it's just to avoid responsibility:
Netanyahu’s plan seeks to increase significantly the number of Haredim serving, through a system of financial penalties that will be imposed on yeshivas where few students obey the draft, as well as through some penalties for individual students who avoid conscription. Its aim is for 60% of Haredi men aged 18 to 24 in 2018 to have served or to be serving.

But the plan may leave intact the Haredi insistence that any man who wishes to study in a yeshiva should be free from service. It is widely believed that large numbers of Haredim are enrolled in yeshivas to avoid service but do not actually attend lessons, and they are the target of the proposal.

“I suggest focusing on the Haredim who don’t study but who nevertheless receive government benefits and service exemptions,” said Eugene Kandel, chairman of the National Economic Council of the Prime Minister’s Office, speaking to Israel’s Channel 2 on February 16. “With 20% effort we could bring 70% of Haredi men into meaningful service in the Israel Defense Forces and into the labor market within five years.”
While it certainly is important to cut down on welfare to the Haredis who aren't helping the country, this does tell something very thought-provoking: as I've wondered at times myself, do all Haredis who don't work or serve in the army actually spend time studying? A perfect example of those who don't would have to be those creepy leches who terrorized the schoolgirls in Beit Shemesh over peanuts. Indeed, what were they doing out on the street there spitting at them and threatening violence? Where I was born that's called "playing hooky".
One of the loudest voices of opposition to the plan comes, unexpectedly, from a Haredi lawmaker. Dov Lipman, who emigrated from the United States eight years ago and worked as a yeshiva teacher, before making it to the Knesset from the bottom of the Yesh Atid list. He has become the perfect poster boy for his party’s draft plan. He worries that if the government decides to make an exception for men who claim they are actually studying, it will indicate a capitulation to Haredim. “They say, ‘Whoever is in learning remains in learning,’ which is essentially no change to the status quo,” Lipman said. [...]

Lipman said that Yesh Atid is demanding a draft for all Haredim when they reach the age of 18, with the exception of 400 outstanding students. It wants to create more Haredi-only units and to cater to the religious demands of Haredim to make service culturally acceptable in the community. Lipman says that this can happen, that the Haredi community will reduce its opposition and that there “won’t be massive numbers [of objectors] going to jail.”

Yesh Atid’s one leniency toward the Haredi sector is its five-year lead-time for a draft, or in Lipman’s parlance, the “amnesty.” Currently, the condition for receiving an exemption is that Haredi men are enrolled in yeshiva, and if enrolled, they are legally barred from working. The Yesh Atid plan says that this rule should be canceled for five years, opening employment opportunities to any Haredim who don’t want to study but wish to avoid the draft.

Yesh Atid, like Netanyahu, believes that many Haredim have no interest in studying in yeshiva and are enrolled simply to receive an exemption. An “amnesty,” it hopes, will disprove the Haredi community’s claim that the draft undermines a culture of near-universal yeshiva study.
Well, there are a lot of positive possibilities in this proposal, and if the Haredis were to work more and rely far less on welfare, the army issue wouldn't be so big a deal. Again, the point about any Haredis only enrolling for the sake of draft dodging is a very valid one.
Yedidia Stern, the author of another prominent draft proposal, finds the idea of the amnesty absurd. If it were implemented, he said, Haredim would be exceedingly careful to safeguard their community’s narrative on yeshiva study, and they would ensure that students do not leave and prove Yesh Atid correct. “If the leadership of the Haredi community will understand that the next five years is a test case for Torah study, then the pressure on people to stay in yeshiva will be enormous,” he predicted.

Stern, who is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, argues that Yesh Atid’s proposal is based on a cultural misunderstanding about what motivates fear of the draft. He said, “The real reason they do not go to the army is the feeling that if a boy of 18 who has spent his life in a ghetto and not seen beyond it won’t come out of the army the same way he went in, they fear he will stop being Haredi, and the fear is that the community’s identity could be over.”
Like that's the worst thing that could happen! If they continue to keep the faith in itself, isn't that what's important? And isn't ghetto dwelling and mentality one of the worst problems to befall this or any century? To be fair, if the Haredi leaders would pressure the members to stay in yeshivas, that might help keep them out of trouble like in the Beit Shemesh case, and they'd do better to stay off the streets and behave themselves. But ghetto mentality is still a very poor example, and something has to be done to penetrate it and get the dwellers to look past the ghetto to a wider world and learn what it's like.
Stern’s solution is to estimate when Haredi men are confident in their identity and to wait until then before drafting them. According to his research, at 22 some 77% of Haredi men are married, suggesting that they are “culturally solid.” Also, he hopes that a draft of men at that age won’t trigger fear of widespread abandonment of a Haredi lifestyle.
But it doesn't help to be part of an insular one that thrives on welfare, and if the Haredi community continues with that mindset, that's why it's just not a sustainable way of living. Stern has to consider this. Only when insularity is abandoned does positivity have a real chance.

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