Opinion

It’s Time to Get Down and Dirty, and Draft the ultra-Orthodox

Haredi exemption from the draft is a perverse luxury that Israeli society can no longer afford

detaining a protester at an anti-draft protest in Bnei Brak
Moti Milrod

What a pity that the so much of the 2019 election was spent on ephemera like legalizing marijuana and Benny Gantz’s hacked cellphone, while one the most fateful issues Israel faces got pushed aside.

It’s particularly strange because a fight over drafting Haredim was the proximate cause of the government’s collapse. And now that the voting is over, the issue has emerged from hibernation and reawakened as a potential spoiler in the coalition negotiations.  

Ensuring that more ultra-Orthodox men are drafted is critical to the future of Israel. That’s not because the army particularly needs the manpower. Even the issue of equal burden is somewhat overwrought, because Israeli-Arabs, who comprise an even larger share of the population, aren’t drafted. Army service has never been equal.

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The real reason is that if Israel wants to remain a prosperous, high-tech economy, it can’t afford to have such a large and growing number of people with so little education and so few skills.

Recent research has highlighted the growing number of “modern” Haredim -- ultra-Orthodox Jews who use the internet, have jobs, take European vacations and want their children to get a general education in addition to their Torah studies. The percentage of Haredim who call them wholly modern is 11 percent and another 29 percent regard themselves as partly modern.

But the fact is, "modern Haredim" remain a marginal phenomenon, just like the outsized media attention devoted to Haredi startup companies. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox are overwhelmingly impoverished and uneducated by modern standards, and there is little sign that apart from a few outliers who now aspire to middle class value that anything is changing. Quite the contrary, it’s getting worse.

There had been some mild progress after Netanyahu pared back the government allowances in 2003 that made it possible for adult males to stay out the workforce while they pursued a life of Torah study. As a result for a stretch of about 10 years, more ultra-Orthodox men entered the workforce while the number of Haredi men and women going to college and university increased 1.5-fold.

But in 2015, the ultra-Orthodox parties joined the coalition and the allowances were restored. Soon, the progress has slowed or even reversed, and today fewer Haredim are working, more men are back in the yeshivas and fewer are pursuing a higher education

Third world inside

This time around the Haredi parties are not only in the government, they have more power than ever. Their Knesset representation grew to 16 from 13 and all signs are that Netanyahu will give them what they want on the draft and everything else. He was always happy to make deals with the in the past, and today he needs them more than ever to support legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox “society of learners” is stronger ever. But its power makes Israel weaker. It’s like having a third world country lodged inside Silicon Valley: The Haredi poverty rate is 2.5 times the overall rate for Israel, the percentage of ultra-Orthodox with a college degree is in the single digits and, as the recent measles outbreak shows, even standards of public health are lower.

It’s not as if Haredim are second-class citizens deprived of the same opportunities as other Israelis. They represent a phenomenon that may be unique in the world at least on a demographic scale. Israel is home to one million people who refuse a good education for their children or work for themselves out of principle.

It’s a perverse luxury that Israeli society can no longer afford. The ultra-Orthodox already comprise 12 percent of the Israeli population, according to the 2018 Statistical Report on Haredi Society; by 2065, they may reach close to a third. It’s hard to imagine how Israel can survive, much less be prosperous and secure, if a third of Israelis are poor, jobless and uneducated.

The government has no choice but to break a system that’s not going to change willingly.

A few ultra-Orthodox will take carrots from the government, such as help with obtaining a higher education, but the ideological and social pressures to conform to the ways of the Society of Learners are immense. The study of Haredi moderns found that even they end up sending their children to yeshivot where there’s no core curriculum.

It’s nasty, but it’s the sticks that will change the majority.

A law that sets quotas for Haredi army enlistment and imposes financial penalties on yeshivas that don’t send enough of their students to the recruitment office, isn’t the only stick the government can wield, but it’s a big one.

Once they are in uniform, Haredi men will be learning useful job skills and getting an entree to the ways of the non-Haredi world. Some will no doubt end up joining the ranks of Haredi moderns, and others will leave the ultra-Orthodox world altogether. Few young men will be unaffected by the experience.

It’s a nightmare scenario for Haredi rabbis and politicians, which is why they’re so resolutely opposed. But for that very reason the rest of Israel should take its cue from Avigdor Lieberman (who, whatever else you might think of him, is leading to the good fight on the draft) and be equally adamant in insisting on a Haredi draft.