Thursday, May 30, 2013

Politics as game theory

"Equality of the burden" is the latest buzz phrase in Israel. Yet since the establishment of the state, there has never been equality of the burden in Israel. During the most difficult days of Israel's War of Independence, the sons of the rich went abroad to study law at British universities, and later returned to Israel to teach the concepts of equality and democracy.
During that same period, others sat in cafes on Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street and, in the midst of their alcohol consumption, analyzed the war's progress on napkins. These were the same people who in later years told us that the IDF is an occupation army, that Meir Har-Zion and the fighters from 101 Unit were hotheads, and that settlers are an obstruction to peace. Throughout Jewish history there have always been small groups of people who carried the burden of the nation on their backs without feeling like suckers.

Religious coercion. No one forced David Ben-Gurion to exempt yeshiva students from military service. Had Ben-Gurion insisted on their serving, under the circumstances that prevailed then, a great majority of haredim would have been recruited to the IDF.
Ben-Gurion and all the prime ministers after him released the haredim from army service out of cynical motives: For a relatively low price, they could buy the votes of the haredim and their representatives in Israel's Knessets.
It was much easier to hold parliamentary coalitions together when there was a consolidated bloc of haredi Knesset members who did not interfere with or disrupt military, diplomatic and economic policies formed in the Prime Minister's Office. Even during those times when haredi parties were outside the coalition, Israel's leadership continued to view them as reserve political assets set aside for times of need.
Politics is applied game theory, an effort to achieve compromises that are then given the status of law. The "society of learners" that haredi Judaism has become was not established by the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, one of the leaders of haredi Judaism in Mandatory Palestine and the new State of Israel), but rather by Israeli prime ministers and Knesset members who played the democratic game to the hilt, a game in whose name we are trying to change a long-standing reality in one fell swoop.
The Netzah Yehuda battalion. This is one of the IDF combat battalions in which haredi soldiers serve. I do not want to insult decent, dedicated soldiers who devote years of their lives to serving their nation, but I get the impression that many members of the battalion were kicked out of haredi learning institutions in their hometowns.
This is not the broad core group of haredim for whom Torah study is a vocation. These are outliers, and their joining the battalion is an excellent solution for haredi society. It also allows veterans of the battalion to better integrate into the workforce.
Entering the workforce has special significance for Israeli families with many children. Poverty by choice is not for most -- especially today when they are exposed to the lifestyles of broader Israeli society. Also, there is no direct connection between military service and entering the workforce. The purpose of the army is not to give people professional training. There are government ministries for that.
Integrating haredim into Israeli society and culture is an outmoded slogan that harks back to the 1950s, when the state and IDF were viewed as a melting pot meant to generate "new Israelis."
The melting pot failed, and that is a good thing. Today's Israeli society is pluralistic, multicultural and very interesting. A culture of debate and disagreement is a foundation stone of Jewish experience throughout the ages.
Haredi society in Israel has already figured out that the pendulum is swinging in its direction and that it is expected to fulfill its share of citizens' duties, in exchange for citizens' rights. Every intelligent person knows that there are no more free lunches when it comes to burdens and rights in Israeli society. Democracy can sometimes be deceptive. We must pay attention to it, to internalize it and be accordingly flexible. Fewer slogans and more wisdom will help resolve the current difference of opinion.

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