Haredi Service Now

For decades, Israel Defense Forces officers were careful not to become involved in the debate over drafting yeshiva students, apparently out of concern over being dragged into a political dispute. But over the past year, one senior officer after another has spoken out about the IDF's serious human resources problem and the consequent need to draft yeshiva students, given the army's prediction that in another 10 years, one out of every four potential draftees will evade the draft in a yeshiva. What this prediction means is that Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) draft evasion, once a serious moral problem, has now become a real threat to our stamina as a nation.

Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi takes every opportunity to unfurl his vision of military or national service for all, including Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox. "If that does not happen," he warned in a newspaper interview earlier this month, "I don't know where we are headed."

The IDF's human resources chief, Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir, said in a December interview with Israel Hayom that each year, another 5,500 young men refuse to be drafted on the grounds that they are full-time yeshiva students. "We are on the way to being one-third of the people's army," Zamir said. "The goal is to draft 50 percent of the ultra-Orthodox."

"We don't have enough soldiers," added Brig. Gen. Orna Barbivai, a senior officer in the IDF's Personnel Directorate, to the Jerusalem Post earlier this month. Such statements are a sign of real trouble.

There is no doubt that the latest data given to the Knesset committee that oversees implementation of the Tal Law, which was enacted to encourage Haredim to serve, are encouraging. Some 1,200 yeshiva students did civilian national service in 2009, and about 800 served in the army - either in the Nahal Haredi combat unit or one of the IDF's special service programs, known as Shahar, in which ultra-Orthodox soldiers learn a profession and then serve in it. It is important to remember that two years ago, there were only 200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers, while civilian service for this group had not yet even been established.

Still, these are very small numbers, given that some 55,000 yeshiva students of every age are currently deferring their service indefinitely. Also very problematic is the fact that most of the civilian service volunteers did their stint in ultra-Orthodox social service organizations rather than in the emergency services, which free up the security forces for other tasks.

It is now clear to all: Yeshiva students can serve, both in the army and in civilian frameworks. But to ensure that this happens in ever-growing numbers, more programs with suitable conditions must be created. Another Haredi battalion should be established, but most of the programs should integrate the Haredim into the rest of the army, as the Shahar programs do, while taking their special needs into account. In addition, positions for the ultra-Orthodox in the emergency services - the fire department, the Magen David Adom ambulance service, the police and the Home Front Command - must be funded. We must remember that this small investment provides yeshiva students with a beeline to the labor market, and thus to contributing to Israel's gross domestic product.

At the same time, massive allocations to the ultra-Orthodox parties must stop. The more child allowances grow, the more funding yeshivas receive and the more housing benefits Haredi cities offer, the more yeshiva students will continue to eke out a living at the public's expense and avoid going into the army or out to work.

The ultra-Orthodox community is suffering a growing economic crisis, but its representatives are channeling funds to the yeshivas instead of encouraging students to enlist in the army or civilian service and then get a job. It is hard to avoid the impression that they are not being guided by what is good for the Haredi public, but rather by their desire to keep it locked up in ghettos.

If they do not come to their senses, the crisis will turn into a complete collapse. Such a collapse would cause their voters a great deal of unnecessary suffering that can still be avoided.

The author is vice president of research and information at Hiddush, an association promoting religious freedom and equality