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Tel Aviv — “In five years’ time there will be so many changes that the Haredim will be able somehow to bring the old situation back,” warmed Idan Miller, chair of Common Ground, which lobbies for universal service. Uri Regev, president and CEO of the Hiddush organization for religious pluralism, bemoans the half-decade wait time, which he says is “conveniently scheduled to ‘kick in’ only after the next elections.”
Casting further doubt on the chances of a major change are the statements from rabbis, who have shown no sign of mellowing on their absolute opposition. “There can be no compromise here that will allow the study of Torah to stop among the Jewish people,” Aharon Leib Shteinman, one of the most influential Ashkenazi Haredim, wrote in the Yated Ne’eman newspaper February 19.
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.”
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.