Opinion

Draft the ultra-Orthodox, for the Sake of Israel's Future

Army service for men is the only way to change patriarchal Haredi society, but don't count on Bibi to do it

A Haredi man protesting plans to institute mandatory conscription for the ultra-Orthodox
Olivier Fitoussi

Could the government that has stood so firm behind Benjamin Netanyahu despite the multiple police investigations into his conduct end up falling over the issue of drafting Haredim?

Don’t count on it. As much as Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is opposed to making any concessions on the issue, the "religious parties" United Torah Judaism and Shas are many times more committed to making sure young Haredi men never don a uniform.

There’s little doubt who will blink first. The prime minister has a long history of caving into Haredi demands to keep them in the coalition.

Guns, butter and yeshiva

Conscription is a critical issue for the Haredi world, because serving in the Israeli army could effectively break the hermetic seal the rabbinic leadership has constructed around the followers. And here’s why.

The Haredi Society of Learners -- where males learn little but Torah in school, avoid army service when they reach 18 and shun the job market for a life of religious learning -- was created by government largesse in the 1980s and 1990s. But it never made economic sense. High birthrates, government handouts, German reparations and women struggling as the sole breadwinners of large families inevitably consigned the community to ever-deeper poverty.

The system couldn’t last forever, and it hasn’t. It was Bibi himself, in an earlier era when he was more courageous, who struck the first blow (in the early 2000s): he cut the government allowances that had sustained the Haredi world. The High Court pitched in, ruling that the system of massive draft exemptions was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, growing poverty forced many families to give up on the idea of a lifetime of religious study for their men.

The rabbis have fought the inevitable with all their might. It would be cynical, though not necessarily inaccurate, to say the economic poverty and the obsession with Torah study that characterized this Society of Learners gave them immense power they aren’t ready to surrender. (In a community where family income is based on yeshiva stipends and charity, it's the rabbis who control the purse strings. Rabbis not only enjoy vast political power thanks to their followers: their authority, based on halacha and their spiritual powers, reaches into people's everyday life.)

More charitably, from their point of view, what could be a higher value than for a Jew to spend his (not her) days in the pursuit of the Torah’s wisdom?

In fact, one of the two pieces of legislation they are demanding be made law would enshrine the notion that religious study is as important to the nation’s defense as is serving in the army into Israel’s Basic Law. Yeshiva study would be an alternative form of service.

Not of this world

A lot has been made about the progress Israel is making in integrating the ultra-Orthodox into mainstream society. But the advances have been overstated, and what progress there has been is because the government has forced it.

Take higher education. The number of Haredim in colleges and universities has grown more than three-fold since 2008, which is nice, but in actual numbers, only a tiny fraction of Haredim aged 25-35 have a bachelor's, or are studying for one.

The standards for admission to special university programs for the ultra-orthodox are very low, since most Haredim don’t get the kind of education you need for college-level work, and the drop-out rate is very high.

Ultra-orthodox students tend to get professional degrees that teach them skills but don’t introduce them to the values of the modern world.

In the labor force, it’s much the same. More and more Haredi men and women are taking jobs, but their labor force participation rate remains much lower than for other Israelis. They tend to occupy the bottom rungs of the labor force, where pay is low and career prospects are minimal. They may be desperate to work but they don’t have the skills to succeed.

Getting back to military service, nor are the figures for Haredi draftees what they seem. The number of ultra-orthodox conscripts has grown 7% or more annually over the last decade, but studies show that these people are mostly from the fringe of Haredi society – such as men who can’t handle religious study.

What progress is being made, is being made mainly by women.

More than half of Haredi girls now take the high school matriculation exam, compared with just 13% of boys. Young Haredi women are twice as likely as men to be in higher education. Many more women work than men in the Haredi community, and while employment for women increased by more than 50% from 2002 to 2015, among men the increase was just 35%.

What we’re seeing isn’t Haredi norms changing so much as we’re seeing women upgrading their job skills and pay, while Haredi men continue to pursue their religious studies. It’s a good first step on the way to integrating Haredim into Israeli society, but it’s far from enough.

Haredi men need to be part of the process and it has to happen much more quickly and deeply than it has.

For the economy, reducing the burden of the taxpayer by getting Haredim into the workforce is not enough. We need highly skilled, highly productive workers to generate higher standards of living and cover Israel's large defense burden.

These needs simply aren’t compatible with the Society of Learner ideals.

For Israel to prosper and progress, the ultra-Orthodox are going to have to change, first and foremost the ultra-orthodox men – not least because it's a patriarchal society. It’s a patriarchal society and in it, women’s achievements don’t count as much as men’s.

If we’re going to change the men, the army is the place to do it. It’s a pity Bibi is unlikely to be the man to do it.