Religious soldier.
IDF soldier praying.
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A well-known chestnut goes like this. One third of Israelis serve in the army, one third work and one third pay taxes. The problem is that it is always the same third.

The joke became acutely material this week in light of the Finance Ministry's controversial proposal to give Haredi men a permanent exemption from military service while letting them join the workforce.

Currently, most Haredi men do not work - 38% participate in the workforce. This is about half the percentage of the general population's workforce participation. One of the reasons for their refusal to work is the Tal Law, which exempts them from the military so long as they are studying full-time in a yeshiva - which means they cannot work. Thus, the Tal Law requires these men not to work in order to defer military service. Since the Haredim do not want to serve in the army, they cannot work. Plain and simple.

In 2008, about 55,000 Haredi men of working age received military deferments - meaning they were full-time yeshiva students, and could not work. In total about 10% of eligible draftees receive these deferments, according to figures from the National Economic Council, and thus do not enlist or work.

Four kinds of damage

The Tal Law left the decision as to when these men would be exempted for good in the hands of the Israel Defense Forces - meaning, the IDF would decide when they would be free to work. Ultimately, they're not exempted before age 30, the National Economic Council figures show. This means that tens of thousands of Haredi men cannot work and support their child-blessed families until they turn 30. Before then, they must live deep in poverty at the state's expense.

The economic damage from this situation is fourfold: first, ultra-Orthodox men are not working and being productive. This translates into a loss of economic growth. Second, the state pays them billions in subsistence allowances. Third, the state cannot use those billions for other purposes, which would contribute much, much more to economic growth. Fourth, the Haredi population remains poor, isolated and cut off from modern life because it is not in the workforce, and this contributes to the growing gaps in Israeli society.

It is possible to find a way around the problem and let Haredim work, if the IDF would agree to free them from their virtual requirement to serve before age 30, since in practice they never actually do serve. But the army is not willing to make the change. Officially, the IDF claims it needs these Haredi soldiers, and has even set up a few special enlistment tracks such as the Nahal Brigade. The IDF claims that if only it were given the necessary budget, it would expand the frameworks for the Haredim and draft more of them. But it seems that the IDF is only paying lip service, and that Haredi soldiers are a big headache: They need strictly kosher food and want religious classes during the day. And the army has too many draftees as it is. Truth be told, the IDF does not really want the Haredi soldiers, but it refuses to admit that officially, and refuses to release them from their legal commitment to serve.

The reason the IDF is so stubborn is mostly a matter of values - equality and serving the country are some of Israeli society's most important ethos. The IDF is protecting this ethos, since it is worried that any crack will be its downfall.

The social cohesion of Israeli society is already coming apart, and the admission by the IDF that it is cancelling the obligation of the Haredim to pay with their blood for Israel's protection, due to money, will most likely put paid to the small bit of cohesion remaining. The one-third of Israeli citizens who contribute may just decide to finally stop being suckers.

That is why the IDF's opposition to giving in to the Haredim is moral and just, but it is not at all clear it is wise. The stubbornness to insist that Haredim must serve equally is just a game of make-believe, as in reality the IDF does not draft them - even if it refuses to admit it.

The reality is that the Haredim are exempt from military service, but at the price of horrible poverty, and Israeli society is also paying the price for their poverty. If Israel society would stop denying reality and admit that Haredim do not serve in the army, it could reach an agreement on a shortened national service as a condition for joining the workforce - and both the Haredim and Israeli society would be better off for it. Better off economically, not morally, that is.

What is more important? The just ethos of military service for all or the wise realization that in practice there is no chance of drafting Haredim? That is the question.