David's Harp

Drafting Haredim Is Good, Finding Them Jobs Is Better

Critics of laws creating a framework for the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army miss the point.

It's a pity that the "Law for the Equal Sharing of the Burden" – the formal name of the legislation creating a framework for drafting Haredim – has been saddled with such a poor choice of a name.

Making implausible claims – "there's nothing like it" or "it will change your life" – is one thing when you're touting a laundry detergent or vacation destination. It's another to do so in politics.

Spain isn't going to bomb Greece for claiming to have the sandiest beaches or the most exciting nightlife. But the bill, which goes to the Knesset for a final vote into law next month, has serious enemies attacking it promising, and not delivering, true equality in army service.

The Haredim are no longer automatically exempt from the draft as they have been for the past 65 years. But they don't have to enter the service at age 18 like the rest of us. Also, an undetermined, but no doubt large, number will get out of service altogether, just to point to a few of these unequal provisions.

So there's a law

Equalizing the burden is a laudable goal, not just vis a vis army service. But given the realities, it isn't going to be attained just because a law is written mandating it.

The Haredim are fighting hard to remain aloof from the rest of Israeli society, taking what they can in the way of government money, relying on its army and police to defend them, on its doctors to keep them healthy and so forth while giving little or nothing back in return.

It's outrageous and intolerable, but it is a way of life built on an ideological and social foundation that isn't going to collapse by legislative diktat. At least, to its credit, the law as it is formulated begins the process of chipping away at the foundation.

Why bother chipping away at all? After all, the army itself isn't looking forward to thousands of under-motivated and uneducated recruits. The general, non-observant public may not be happy about Haredi draft evasion – why should they serve two or three years, then serve in reserves for decades? – but there was hardly a groundswell of anger for the nearly seven decades the ultra-Orthodox refused to serve.

Our problem isn't that we need to equalize the burden or ensure the army meets it recruitment targets. Our problem is that the Haredim must join the labor force. Army service is one of the best ways to get them to do that.

Out of work and proud of it

Among Haredim, the proportion of working age men actually holding down a job is about 40% to 45%. That compares with 80% for the rest of the male Jewish population, which is close to the average for countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The rest of Israel could do without the contribution of Haredi labor to economic output and bear the burden of its schnorring - when the Haredim themselves were only 3% or 5% of the population, as they were 30 years ago. Today their share is pushing10% and by 2059, according to the Bank of Israel, it will reach 27%.

Israel will be stretched to the breaking point economically if so much of the country is not only not working but counting on an ever smaller ratio of others to support it.

But bringing the ultra-Orthodox into the job market isn't that simple.

The Haredi leadership disparages labor, ensures its followers have few skills to enter the job market and has created an isolated community of rigid values that imposes a heavy price on anyone who flirts with the outside world.

Although the model of the impoverished Torah scholar has frayed, the material and careers incentive don’t have the same power to motivate people in the non-Haredi world.

You aren't in the army now

Then, there is the problem of education.

Surviving in the modern economy require skills. The modern Israeli market is driven by the creativity, innovative capacity and problem-solving skills of its people. Last year the Bank of Israel estimated that 40% of the increase in Israel's per capita gross domestic product over the four decades to 2011 was due to increased education.

The average number of years an Israeli had been in school was 13.4 in 2011. For Haredi men it is conventionally measured as 14.3, but that it because a yeshiva education is treated as any other education, which it isn't from the point of view of the job market. Adjusting for the differences, the Bank of Israel estimated that the average Haredi male has the equivalent of just 9.9 years of schooling.

If the ultra-Orthodox don't begin closing the education gap, economic growth will slow over the coming decades, the central bank warns.

In his victory speech after the Shaked committee vote, Finance Minister Yair Lapid reassured the Haredim that their community wasn't under assault. "No one is seeking to change your way of life," he promised. But that can't be the government's true aim if its ultimate goal – as it has to be – is to bring the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce.

Drafting Haredim will introduce them to the wider world and teach them at least a modicum of job-related skills.

One of the law's most controversial clauses, which lets the yeshivot choose who stays in school and who gets packed off to the army, should actually encourage the process by shearing off the young men who aren't Torah-scholar material from the yeshiva world. From the army, a few might pursue a degree and maybe in the next generation willingly send their sons (maybe daughters!) to enlist in the army willingly. It's unfortunate that the law allows Haredi men to put off army service till as late as 24, which will make this shearing off process a little more difficult because most of them will be married with families, but no one said the law was structured perfectly. It should be effective enough.

The rabbis would have you believe that the community of learning that exists in Bnei Barak and large parts of Jerusalem, where adult males study and their wives scratch out a living, is an age-old Jewish practice.

It's nothing of the sort. It only came into existence in the last few decades as government allowances made it economically feasible to shun the world of work. The kollel in the form it exists now as a place for older, married men to learn for an indefinite period of time is a modern invention made possible by the welfare state. There were no child allowances in czarist Russia or coalition governments you could blackmail in Sura and Pumbedita. There can't be any in modern Israel either.

A soldier in the Netzah Yehuda ultra-Orthodox battalion standing in a parking lot, April 25, 2012.
Moti Milrod
AFP