End of the people's army
Even though the cabinet's decision phase out Haredi handouts is intended to encourage army service, we can expect it to do exactly the opposite.
The cabinet is scheduled to address two proposals involving God today. The first one is about drafting yeshiva students into the army or national service, while the second is about the income guarantees that the poorest 10% of yeshiva students receive. These two proposals, designed to get Haredi men to join the workforce, go hand in hand, and both involve the work of God - who, as you know, is in the details.
The most meaningful aspect of these decisions is the age 22; that's the age when Haredi men will be given the choice of joining the workforce and the real world, or continuing to study at a yeshiva. They don't really have a choice before that age. Haredi teens study at high-school yeshivas and automatically move on to a yeshiva for men between the ages of 18 and 22.
That second yeshiva is critical, because it is what determines the young Haredi man's value in the matchmaking market. That's the main reason that there's nearly no chance of drafting 18-year-old Haredim. People who join the Haredi Nahal unit are already on their way out of the ultra-Orthodox community.
So, Haredi men will not forgo yeshiva from ages 18-22, but after that point, once the men are married or engaged, things look entirely different. That's when they choose whether to work and support their family, or embrace a life of yeshiva study and poverty.
At one point the choice was quite simple - the government would give married yeshiva students generous benefits including child support, income guarantees and yeshiva funding, all of which enable a decent existence. But in 2003, child support benefits were cut, and now the government is planning to make it more difficult to receive income guarantees, making the decision more difficult.
The Israel Defense Forces recognized this change, and over the past five years, it developed a program for married Haredi men aged 22 and over. This program, Shahar, is growing in popularity, and currently includes 500 men, on top of the 500 in Nahal. Everyone benefits - the IDF gets more manpower, while the Haredim receive preferable conditions that include technology training, pay of NIS 4,000 a month and job options when they're done.
The first cabinet decision is intended to expand that success by giving the army NIS 130 million to expand Shahar and Nahal, and to offer Haredi men shortened service that includes basic training so that they can serve in the reserves. It also includes more money to expand national service programs for Haredim, including with the police, the firefighting force and Magen David Adom.
Sounds great, except for one little detail: Up until now, it was the army that decided whether Haredi men could be excused from military service in order to do civil service. The army would let them defer their service so long as they were yeshiva students, and once they were 26, or 22 with children, it let them choose civil service over military service.
Now, that decision will be made by the young Haredi men, not the army. A 22-year-old father or a 24-year-old married man will be able to choose civil service over military service. Thus, the decision essentially excuses Haredi men from military service starting at age 22. Anyone who values Israel's army being a people's army cannot but regret this. The government is essentially forgoing a central national value for the sake of the Haredim.
Since national service is shorter and easier than army service, it's reasonable to assume that most Haredim will choose the former. So even though the decision is intended to encourage army service, we can expect it to do exactly the opposite.
Not everyone believes this will be the result, of course. The IDF supports the initiative, and it also has the backing of the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office. They expect that not only will Shahar attract young Haredi men, but it will attract the community's finest: It gives them valuable workforce skills, and the monthly pay of NIS 4,000 is nearly double what they'd receive during national service.
Does Shahar's attractiveness merit this historic change - forgoing mandatory military service for Haredi men, starting at age 22? We can very much hope so, because if not, Israel is liable to pay by having the foundations of its values shaken.
So that's the first proposal - the carrot. The second proposal is supposed to be the stick. It aims to cap the period of time that yeshiva students can receive income supplements at five years. The current average is eight years. It also states that the most talented 20% of students will be able to study Torah and receive income allowances for life.
The five years start only in 2011, which means that it will be a different government that has to see through the cuts in 2016 - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is passing the buck. But that said, only 10% of all Haredi yeshiva students even receive income allowances, which means that the stick won't even affect them.
And that's the crux of the matter. The government, instead of dealing with the piddly NIS 127 million going to poor yeshiva students' income allowance, should be dealing with the NIS 1 billion that yeshivas receive every year.
This full government funding enables them to give scholarships to students and encourage them to stay out of the workforce. So long as the yeshivas themselves are receiving full government funding, these other proposals may fail to meet their goals entirely.