David's Harp / A Haredi draft, or an economic tsunami
The bad news for those who think the ultra-orthodox can be won over with integration-lite is that a yeshiva education doesn’t do it.
If the balance of ideological forces over drafting the ultra-orthodox is typified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, then the battle is all but lost. That is because Shteinman understands that the future of the Haredi world is at stake. The prime minister, on the other hand, seems to regard the Haredi draft issue primarily as a threat to his coalition that has to be resolved quickly and quietly.
In fact, both miss the point: The issue of drafting Haredim, which was being discussed by the Plesner Committee until Bibi disbanded it, is about the future of the state, perhaps even its long-term survival.
Officially Plesner was about creating a mechanism under which all Jewish Israelis are equally liable for army service, as ordered by the High Court of Justice.
But it’s not the army that needs the Haredim. The fact is that experience shows that drafting, training and maintaining them takes a huge amount of time, trouble and expense. Specifically, it cost NIS 90 million to enlist 1,282 Haredim last year, according to a Knesset report.
Rather, it is the economy that needs them. Depending on who you ask, the Haredim constitute between 8% and 11% of the population. That is already a considerable burden, given how few work and how many depend on the largesse of state allowances.
But if the state of enrolment in first grade is any indication, the situation will become untenable in two decades. Haredi children constitute a quarter of all first-grade enrolments in Israel today.
That means that by 2032, a quarter of the population starting their working years will have received an education that gives them almost none of the skills needed to contribute to a modern economy, much less an advanced economy based on high technology. A lot of that 25% will refuse to work at all on principle and – based on an ever-widening list of humrot -- those that do work will refuse to accommodate themselves to normal workplace activities like sitting in the same room with a woman (or a man, as the case may be).
How can we avoid this fate? Forcing the Haredim to serve in the army is a better start here in Israel than it would be in a lot of other economies. The army is the ticket into mainstream Israeli society and its training makes up for the deficiencies of the educational system. You could argue that the NIS 90 million spent on the 1,282 Haredim recruits last year was better value for the economy and the labor force than the hundreds of millions spent subsidizing Intel.
Coaxing them out of kollel isn't enough
The deeper issue, however, is integrating Haredim into Israeli society. Army service is a doorway in, but it is just as important that for most of the Haredi recruits that door slams shut behind them, with their attitudes and lifestyles left on the other side. Because the issue for the economy is not simply coaxing Haredim out of the batei midrash and into offices and factory floors. It is more than teaching them math, civics and English.
It is about infusing them with the values and worldview of mainstream Israel, which for all its problems has an enormous capacity to generate the kind of innovation, teamwork and critical analysis that is at the heart of a modern economy.
The bad news for those who think the Haredim can be won over with integration-lite is that a yeshiva education doesn’t do it. There is a lot of talk among Haredi apologists that between the legendary Yiddishe kop and the beauties of Talmud study, Haredim can emerge from the yeshiva and conquer the workplace. This is a dangerous mix of sentimentalism and ethnic pride that’s best left to the confines of Fiddler on the Roof revivals.
There is another unrealistic school of thought that posits that work is work. Let the Haredim open makolot for themselves and become semi- or unskilled labors inside their own communities, so long as they are doing something. But that path is likely to lead to a Haredi unemployment problem and fail the economy because among the uneducated and unskilled, joblessness is rampant. The economy needs skilled labor and Haredim are becoming too big a part of the population to sit on the margins of the labor force.
Bibi belongs to this second school. He is one of the country’s few politicians who articulates a vision of an economically prosperous Israel.
His problem – besides a preoccupation with political expediency – is that he shares much of the reductionism of economic conservatives that growth is good and work is work, without much thought to the other ingredients that make for prosperity.
Rabbi Shteinman probably has no views that could be called economic at all, but he has a keen understanding of what underpins the Haredi world and how much of a threat the draft presents. “There’s nothing to talk with them about,” Shteinman told the Haredi newspaper Yated Neeman in an interview three weeks ago, referring to the Haredi draft. “There is no way they can tell a young man to start studying at age 20 0r 30. These are the years that a young man needs to devote himself only to Torah. We cannot surrender any young man that wants to study. It’s not open to discussion.”
Unfortunately, his either-or proposition is correct. The question is whether the rest of Israel is prepared to see it that way and fight with the same vigor. If our prime minister is our leader in this one, I suspect not and the defeat will be immense.