Ultra-Orthodox Population Growing Too Fast Not to Join Workforce, Panel Told

According to the Education Ministry, Haredi boys are 25 percent to 27 percent of all Jewish first graders in Israel, and 13 percent to 15 percent of Jewish 18-year-olds.

Ophir Bar-Zohar
Ophir Bar-Zohar
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Ophir Bar-Zohar
Ophir Bar-Zohar

Ultra-Orthodox boys aged three to six account for some 32 percent of all Jewish boys in this age group, according to data submitted recently to the Plesner Committee, which is seeking ways to integrate Haredim and Arabs into military or civilian service.

According to Education Ministry statistics, Haredi boys are 25 percent to 27 percent of all Jewish first graders, and 13 percent to 15 percent of Jewish 18-year-olds. While this year's draft cohort includes 7,500 Haredi teens, there are 13,000 Haredi boys of compulsory kindergarten age.

According to information supplied by an Israel Defense Forces representative to the panel, nearly all Haredim who are drafted into the IDF join the workforce afterward: 91 percent of those who went through the Shahar program, which integrates Haredim into non-combat positions, are either working or studying, as are 87 percent of veterans of the Netzah Yehuda (Nahal Haredi ) battalion. Some 15 percent of those in the Shahar track sign on for additional years of service in the standing army.

Committee chairman MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) said these statistics demonstrate the risks faced by the "people's army" model, as well as the danger to Israel's economy. The data also correlate with remarks made by National Economic Council head Eugene Kandel, who told the panel that current trends of low workforce participation could put Israel in a position of not being able to finance its defense needs.

During yesterday's discussions, former IDF Personnel Directorate commander Elazar Stern suggested making army service for Haredim voluntary for a period of 10 years, predicting that by the end of this period some 50 percent of Haredim would enlist.

Stern and David Hager, a representative of the Netzah Yehuda Association affiliated with the Nahal Haredi battalion, said that based on data they've received from leaders of the Haredi community, some 10,000 young Haredim are not studying in yeshiva but are basically wandering the streets, and that within six years most of these young men could be drafted into IDF combat units.

Regarding Israeli Arabs, representatives of the Abraham Foundation called on the panel to return its mandate to formulate legislation for service by Israeli Arabs. Amnon Be'eri-Sulitzeanu and Mohammad Darawshe, said the committee should rather recommend that the government open a separate dialogue with Israeli Arab leaders on a framework for voluntary community service. At the same time, they said, that dialogue should also address reducing other inequalities between Jews and Arabs.

Be'eri-Sulitzeanu and Darawshe said that in contrast to discussions with Haredi representatives about national service, which have gone on for a decade, the government has never discussed civilian service with the Israeli Arab leadership.

Plesner, however, noted that his committee has made intensive efforts to seek input from Arab representatives, but that the latter have refused to cooperate.

Ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.

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