The Plesner committee has failed.
I say this without even knowing what practical conclusions it has reached. Yet its failure stems from the fact that it never was an objective committee in the first place; it never set out to analyze the issue of a blanket yeshivah student draft from all its angles and arrive at an equitable solution. No. The starting point was that there was only one possible solution: across-the-board drafting bnei yeshivah into the army, period.
The committee was not convened to examine whether this assumption was, in fact, correct or valid. Influenced by the atmosphere on the street, fanned by politicians and a hostile media, the committee recognized only one side to the problem: equality in bearing the burden of Israel’s military security. No broad or deep examination of the issue, and no honest sociological or historical research to provide a clearer picture of the realities of Israeli society. This wasn’t the committee’s mandate. Its only task was to find a way to implement universal conscription. It was an enforcement committee, a correction committee, whose goal was to figure out whether to use a carrot, a stick, or both, to bring the chareidim into line.
Hannah Kim, writing in Haaretz, addressed this issue several years back when a group calling itself “Hitorerut,” similar to today’s noisy “HaFreierim” (“the suckers”), called for the immediate conscription of yeshivah students:
“There is something anachronistic in this campaign by a group of young people from Ramat HaSharon and Herzliya to put the chareidim in uniform.
“The desire to force an entire population, whose faith and way of life clash with the military way of life, at a time when less of Israeli society than ever is serving in the army, is more than undemocratic. It is first of all disconnected from the true problems of our society. The hackneyed phrase, ‘discrimination between our blood and theirs,’ that the young people of Hitorerut are using, and their demand that the chareidim ‘take their share of the burden,’ are not compatible with the principles of equality and democracy. The rights of citizens in a true democracy must be absolute, and their obligations must be based on their financial and physical ability as well as their principles. In order for chareidim to serve in the army, one of two things must happen: either they must give up their way of life, or the army must make changes to accommodate them. The first alternative is undemocratic, and the second is impractical.”
But this point never came up for discussion in the deliberations of the Plesner committee. They never considered their mandate any kind of violation of democratic principles. But if they are hinting at forcing a sector of the population to give up fundamental principles regarding their way of life, this is clearly undemocratic – and so all their conclusions must be seen as undemocratic.
Furthermore, these Israeli lawmakers failed to look at the issue from the viewpoint of Jewish history, despite their constant declarations about the dream of a democratic and Jewish state. We’ve already seen how their “progressiveness” has flown in the face of democracy, and it’s clear that they are defying Judaism as well — even by secular criteria — in this attempt to dismantle the Torah world, assuming that their avowed desire to preserve the Jewish People is not mere lip service.
A secular economist named Ro’i Kashi, asked to appraise this issue of conscripting bnei yeshivos, [YL1] wrote the following:
“The truth is that since the days of David HaMelech, the Jewish nation has been divided into two sides: the fighters who defend Am Yisrael, and the intellectuals — the Torah scholars who protect the tradition. Unfortunately, to this day each side fails to perceive its dependence on the other. The Jewish People survived two thousand years of exile and became one of the senior and dominant nations of the world because of this interdependence. When the soldiers failed in their task of defending the Jewish People, it was the Torah scholars, through their ardor and faith, who succeeded in preserving the Torah tradition of the Jewish People and passing it from one generation to the next, despite the dangers, the persecutions, and the attempts at extermination.
“Rabi Akiva is an outstanding example of a Torah scholar in whose merit the Jewish People is still here today. When the Romans conquered Eretz Yisrael, Hadrian, the Roman governor in Jerusalem, set out to eradicate the Jewish People through anti-religious decrees. The Jewish religion and tradition were outlawed. The penalty for defying the decrees, which forbade basic Jewish mitzvot such as brit milah, Torah study, the existence of batei midrash and batei din, Sabbath observance, mezuzah, Kriyat Shema, succah, Chanukah candles, tefillin, shofar, etc., was death, and sometimes collective punishment was decreed on the family, or even the whole town, of the lawbreaker.
“Shimon Bar Kochva, who saw Rabi Akiva as his spiritual leader, led a failed rebellion against the Roman Empire; yet Rabi Akiva, knowing the importance of educating the young generation, continued teaching Torah in public regardless of his own safety. One of Rabi Akiva’s well-known metaphors was the comparison of a Jew without Torah to a fish without water. In other words, the Jewish People would not have survived, and we would not be here today, if not for the chareidi fanatics who believed that Torah study was the purpose of their lives.
“Jewish history is full of stories of Torah scholars who, against all odds, stood up to empires that tried to wipe out the Jewish People. Years before Rabi Akiva’s time, Yehudah HaMaccabi stood up against the anti-Torah decrees of Antiochus IV, king of the Seleucid Empire. The Jewish People survived the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Romans, and the Nazis, thanks to the stubborn refusal to abandon the Torah. So is this the time to abandon the Torah?
“Therefore, on the heels of a history full of the Jewish People’s tribulations, the first rationale for government allowances for kollel students is purely one of security. History proves that ‘extremists’ who gave their lives for Torah study succeeded where armies failed. On the other hand, if not for long periods of security enjoyed by Torah scholars thanks to the soldiers of the Jewish people, Jewish culture and tradition would not have developed to what they are today. Thus, there is a symbiotic relationship by which Jewish survival depends on both the fighters who protect the Jewish People and the intellectuals — the chachmei Yisrael — who protect the Torah. One cannot survive without the other.”
One classic example that Kashi does not mention is Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, who was perceived as a defeatist when he defected, in their opinion, to the Roman side and asked for Yavneh and its sages. The strong army that controlled besieged Jerusalem was defeated, while Raban Yochanan ben Zakai ensured the survival of the Jewish People, including those who are now trying to put an end to Torah study as a central factor in our nations’ life. In any case, Ro’i Kashi makes an interesting secular argument. He does not discuss our unshakable belief that Torah protects and saves the Jewish People. Instead, he focuses on the historical view of Jewish survival, and says that despite the presence of large, strong armies that have served us at certain times in our history, those armies have been defeated, and it was the zealots who upheld the Torah who led the nation forward into the future. That is to say, those who dream of a democratic and Jewish state would be wise to support the Torah scholars rather than plotting against them.
And now, a few words for the members of the Plesner Committee:
We understand, honored committee members, how relevant the security rationale is to our situation today, with the Iranian threat and other dangers hovering over us. Although the IDF is, baruch Hashem, a strong army, people are worried. Bar Kochva had a strong army, too. He was as arrogant as certain IDF commanders. And nevertheless… it was not he who ensured a future for Am Yisrael, but Rabi Akiva.
It would be fitting, then, to heed the words of a writer who is not religious, yet who realizes from a historical perspective that our people’s security depends on the community of Torah scholars.
Committee members, before it’s too late, can you also think out of the box for a moment? Can you emerge from your narrow worldview, from your preconceived purpose of punishing the slackers, and broaden the parameters of your thinking to include the ideas of other thinkers? To let go of the antidemocratic nature of the call to conscript the chareidim en masse, and the need, for the sake of Israel’s security, to allow Torah scholars to learn undisturbed? Do you really care about the future of your people?
Berel Katzenelson, a leader of the Labor movement, wrote:
“It is natural that one generation will rebel against another. But that a generation should not know its predecessor, that is a curse that only our generation suffers from, when he who ‘did not know Yosef’ extends even to Menashe and Ephraim. And a people that lacks a past lacks a present, and it won’t have a future either” (Kol Kitvei Berel, vol. 7, Kodmei Kodmeinu).
Do you imagine that if you don’t consider the past, you will somehow have a future without us? Even the present is highly dubious.
An expanded version of this article in its original Hebrew was submitted to the Plesner committee as part of its document package