Is anyone listening? Replacing Israeli draft laws with dialogue

The drama in Israel surrounding a Haredi draft is rapidly approaching a boiling point. If a new law is not passed by July 31, tens of thousands of Haredi yeshiva students will either turn up at IDF bases or face the law. And with protests here growing each week, one can’t help but fear that a violent clash is in the offing. Unless, of course, someone can get both sides to sit down and begin listening instead of shouting.

This summer has already been a hot one on the Israeli political front, and it’s getting blistering as the Haredi IDF draft exemption rapidly expires. But as Israelis have obsessed over legislation and politics to create what they call shivyon banetel, or a “balance of responsibility,” a critical ingredient has been missing: consensus.

While voices on both sides of the argument claim there’s nobody they can talk to, Gesher has found a different reality on the ground. Back in September, when trouble in Beit Shemesh erupted into hostile protests around the Orot Girls’ School, Gesher’s Ilan Geal-Dor began facilitating dialogue between Haredi rabbis and leaders of other local communities. What began slowly, as a delicate dance of trust-building, has transformed into a formal roundtable that meets regularly to address local issues and prevent future troubles. Building on that success, Gesher has been building a new group for roundtable meetings focused specifically on the issue of IDF enlistment and National Service.

Has it been easy getting leaders from both sides to meet? Not at all. But determination and careful diplomacy is beginning to yield results. Similar to what we experienced in Beit Shemesh, Haredi leaders are willing to join on condition of anonymity, while others are slowly realizing the importance of sitting down to talk, and most importantly, listen. Unfortunately, however, the political process often divides and alienates. Only dialogue and pragmatic discussion will achieve the consensus we need.

Looking back well before the Beit Shemesh incident a few months ago, we can learn from an important precedent set by Ben Gurion. 65 years ago he arrived at a historic consensus and even compromise with Haredi leaders in what was known as the Status Quo Agreement. It was compromise by all parties, and it was far from perfect. In fact, it could be said that many of the troubles we face today are rooted in the precedent set by the Status Quo. The agreement outlines four key areas: Shabbat, kashrut, ishut (marriage, divorce, etc), and education. In each area the Haredi community was promised a country that would respect its needs and interests. The Status Quo became, and remains today, a sort of social contract on which many other concessions have been made – including Haredi draft exemption.

But even though each side feels cheated by the Status Quo today, it was also an agreement achieved with impressive pragmatism. Each side needed to compromise for self-interests and understood the need to come to the table and protect a common good. Similarly, today we must find a renewed spirit of pragmatism and patience to save the Israel that is precious to us all.

We must create meetings of the minds at the level of politicians, journalists, community leaders and neighbors. We must build trust and understanding, and a true commitment to a shared existence in Israel. We must listen to the voices on each side, carefully, and each side must be ready to listen before speaking. And perhaps most importantly, we must be pragmatic and real in our expectations, both of the other and most certainly of ourselves. Because we must create a true balance of responsibility by first building consensus.

About the Author
Yoni Sherizen is a director of Gesher, a Jerusalem-based organization devoted to bridging the differences between Israelis and strengthening a shared Jewish identity.