Many haredi (ultra-Orthodox) mothers know that they owe a huge debt to the High Court of Justice. With its ruling (revoking the blanket exemption the state had granted ultra-Orthodox men from mandatory army service), those infidel justices, heaven help us, have opened a tiny window of hope to these mothers' children. Now they won't end up being idle and spending their days studying the Torah; instead, they will acquire professions, go to work and improve their standard of living. Only these mothers don't dare express what they know in their hearts.
None of the haredim dares praise the court's decision — except for MK Haim Amsallem, who is merely saying so to be contrary to Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party that ousted him from its ranks. He has criticized Shas's leadership for doing the bidding of the Ashkenazi politicians from another ultra-Orthodox party — United Torah Judaism. But mandatory enlistment in the military is the ultra-Orthodox's ticket to escaping the crowded poverty of Mea Shearim and Bnei Brak and achieving economic stability and confidence.
But sadly, the opinion of the ultra-Orthodox mothers is not heard. The ultra-Orthodox MKs and the rabbis are fighting tooth and nail to prevent their herd from being integrated into the mainstream of Israeli society. They are doing everything within their power to sabotage the implementation of the High Court decision. The High Court of Justice had ruled that the Tal Law — the law that exempts the ultra-Orthodox men from service — was discriminatory and that the law should strive for equality.
The battle now encompasses many different localized disputes. The committee headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, which was tasked with drafting an equitable alternative to the Tal Law, has suggested lowering the enlistment age from 27-28 (under the current Tal Law) to 22 (non-haredi youth enlist at age 18). The committee proposed offering incentives to yeshivas (religious schools) that encourage their students to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. But the main bone of contention surrounds the plan to impose personal penalties on ultra-Orthodox men who dodge the draft.
Plesner is determined to impose a hefty fine on those individuals. Personal fines — not fines on the yeshivas. Anyone who fails to enlist by the time he turns 22 will have to put 30,000 shekels back into the state coffers from his own pocket.
Shas has already informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that personal penalties for draft dodgers are out of the question. But Plesner, who is no less persistent than Shas, told Netanyahu that his committee will officially recommend personal penalties, without exceptions.
Plesner's view will be approved by the committee, despite reservations expressed by coalition chairman MK Zeev Elkin. The government is not required to adopt the committee's recommendations in full, but if Plesner insists on personal penalties for draft dodgers, it will be very difficult for Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (both of whom have become champions of equality in service) to vote against him.
Many people are telling Netanyahu that these disputes between the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism and Mofaz's and Lieberman's parties Kadima and Yisrael Beytenu, cannot be settled. But the prime minister reassured his close associates that at one time, the hot-button issue of Ulpana seemed unsolvable, but it was ultimately resolved (the court ruled that the Ulpana neighborhood of the settlement of Beit El had to be evacuated, and thanks to a deal struck between the residents and the prime minister, the evacuation has, so far, been peaceful). Netanyahu was repeatedly warned that he couldn't possibly make a square out of a circle, but in the end he came up with a solution that enabled him to have his cake and eat it too. Maybe he will get lucky again.
The nerve wracking struggle over the alternative to the Tal Law appears as though it is being waged on the precipice of a political abyss, but that sense is misleading. Neither Shas and United Torah Judaism, nor Kadima and Yisrael Beytenu will quit the coalition over it. They will only talk a big talk. On the other hand, if Netanyahu adopts Plesner's personal penalties he will find that most Likud voters support his stance. After all, the sons of Likud voters also serve in the IDF. A profound change is in order to remedy the haredi draft dodging — not just a cosmetic change or a legal makeover.
This is a wonderful opportunity for the prime minister to spearhead a gradual demographic revolution. It is far better than dealing in small politics. In any case, he won’t lose voters if he supports personal penalties.