“Equalizing the burden.” That’s more or less how the issue of drafting Haredim into the army is conventionally labeled, which says a lot about the issue has been defined by those who advocate forcing the ultra-Orthodox to trade in their jet black for drab green for a couple of years.
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Draft advocates say Haredim should serve in the army just like everyone else – and in the same way they should hold jobs, pay taxes and have no more right to government handouts than anyone else. It’s a matter of fairness and justice.
The fairness argument is compelling. In a country beset by multiple challenges – where wars and terrorism are a recurring feature and people have to settle for lower standard of living than most of the West – social solidarity has a higher value than it has in richer and more peaceful places. That applies to ensuring that income inequality is minimized, access to good schooling and health is assured, and people feel that whatever sacrifices have to made are being made by everyone.
The status of the Haredim over the past 40 years, as a community entitled to special privileges and virtually no burdens, may have been mildly tolerable when they were a small and marginal factor in society. But their numbers have grown too big to allow the rest of the country to ignore them as idiosyncratic and picturesque like Americans do the Amish.
Haredim probably make up close to 10% of the population and that figure will only grow. The ultra-orthodox today account for a quarter of all first–graders. Even if a large number of them drop out of the Haredi community as they grow older, the ultra-Orthodox are destined to account for an even bigger portion of Israelis in the future.
The economy can’t bear so many people not working as a matter of principle, expecting to live off the increasingly smaller percentage that does.
But the argument for drafting Haredim goes well beyond the issue of fairness.
For Israel, it’s a life and death matter - not because the army needs tens of thousands of poorly trained, flabby and poorly motivated recruits to defend the country, but because the economy desperately needs their labor and to wean them off state aid.
Integrating the Haredim into the labor force is not going to be easy. Forget the ideological barriers to holding a job - those are starting to break down as the economy of the Haredi society of learners collapses under the weight of poverty, forcing more and more of the community to look for work. Two studies, one by Israel's National Economic Council and one by the Bank of Israel, both found rising employments rates in the Haredi world, in some cases rapidly rising rates, over the last decade.
But their lack of relevant skills means they are getting jobs at the bottom rungs of the labor ladder. Not only is the pay low but the opportunities are limited and shrinking.
The jobless rate is highest among Israelis with the least education, a category the ultra-Orthodox belong to. They don’t have a proper education, they are unfamiliar with the ways of the modern world and they have erected barriers for themselves to most kinds of jobs, most notably shunning contact with the opposite sex.
Forcing the Haredi schools to start teaching basic skills would be one way to for them to acquire math, English and other core knowledge. But getting those skills incorporated into the Haredi curriculum would require cooperation from the rabbinical leadership, which is where the strongest opposition to social integration comes from.
A better solution would be take young ultra-Orthodox men out of the confines of Geula and B’nai Brak and put them into training bases that distance them from the influence of rabbis and community pressure. Ideally, the Israel Defense Forces shouldn’t have the role of educator and social catalyst forced on it, but the fact is that has already happened because the regular school system doesn’t fulfill its role. Adding the Haredim to the list of recruits that need to be trained is a perfectly acceptable burden, especially as the army suffers manpower shortages in technology fields where young enlistees can be assigned.
Just as importantly as acquiring a modicum of useful skills, ultra-Orthodox recruits will be put face to face with Israeli society and inevitably adopt its norms at a time when they are young and most impressionable.
Killing the dream
If that sounds like Moshe Gafni or Meir Porush’s worst nightmare, that’s how it should sound.
There’s no reason to try to sell the idea of equal burden for all without acknowledging where it has to lead, which is bringing the Haredim into the 21st century. Israel cannot continue with such a big and growing part of its population living in a dream world of Torah study cut off from the demands of real life.
The rabbis and Haredi politicians fully understand the meaning of mandatory army service, which is why they are issuing dire warnings that drafting Haredim will lead to mass protests and jails of full of men refusing to serve.
But the rabbis have only themselves to blame for Haredi vulnerability. They created an insular world predicated on their followers being isolated from outside influences and fearful of breaking with their friends, families and rabbis. Instead of a community of real believers with the intellectual and social tools to contend with the wider world, they have built one based on a kind of blissful ignorance – that can be easily shattered by a course in computers or an evening out at the cinema.
Popular resistance may not be nearly as deep as the rabbinic leadership makes it out to be.
The government can head off popular opposition by creating a framework that assuages the Haredi world’s operative concerns. On a small scale, is has done that with the Nahal Haredi units and the Air Force’s Shahar Kachol program, where Haredim eat mehadrin kosher food and avoid unnecessary contact with women. Just as importantly, the government needs to stand up to Haredi resistance in ways it has not to date.
The fact that a good part of the secular electorate has made known how important they feel about the issue by giving so many mandates in Yesh Atid may finally serve as a source of courage.