Analysis

Israeli Majority's Fight With ultra-Orthodox Should Be Over Education, Not Conscription

Secular majority can’t force military service, but it can compel Haredi schools to teach children the core curriculum

File photo: Ultra-Orthodox men demonstrating against the draft bill, Bnei Brak, Israel, 2018.
Moti Milrod

When TheMarker called last week for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox to be exempt from army service and focus the government’s efforts on integrating them into the workforce, many readers were furious. The rest of the country serves in the army, works and pay taxes, why should Haredim be an exception?

“There is a law that says all young people enlist in the army when they turn 18,” wrote one angry reader. “Why did I and my children serve the state — and had we not, we would have been tried and sent to prison? Why do secular parents have to stay awake every night for three years knowing their child may be killed at any minute, while Haredi parents are exempt from such worries? Why should the mother of a secular son have to visit him in the cemetery while a Haredi mother doesn’t?”

>> Opinion: Will secular Israelis be left alone in the dark? ■ Opinion: Israel's brain drain is the flight of the left

The writer said ultra-Orthodox men who refuse to serve should be imprisoned, like anyone else. But as we explained to him, that’s not a realistic solution when Haredim account for 12% of the population. It will become even less realistic as time passes. By 2060, a third of Israelis could be Haredim, according to Central Bureau of Statistics forecasts.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 29Haaretz

The reader became despondent: “The state cannot survive economically, socially or militarily the minute they become a third of the population. Therefore, like many of my acquaintances, I would encourage our children to emigrate and build their lives in a place where they aren’t told what to eat, who to marry, when to work and how to live. It’s really chutzpah, not only do they live at our expense but they want to tell us how to live. I don’t see any future for the country.”

That rage and frustration is no doubt shared by most secular Israelis. They are the majority, but they feel their rights are being taken from them by a powerful, cynical minority. Secular Israelis have morality on their side, but not wisdom.

Secular Israelis make two fundamental mistakes when it comes to the Haredim.

The first is picking the wrong battle. The battle over army service is just, but it isn’t smart because it cannot be won. You can’t put tens of thousands of Haredim into prison, and that means you don’t have a weapon you can use against them.

On the other hand, the battle over the core curriculum – insisting that ultra-Orthodox schools teach subjects such as math, science and English – is both far more important than the draft and one that the secular majority can win. Recall that the Haredi education system is funded by the taxes paid by the secular majority, who study, serve in the army and work for a living.

What would happen if the secular majority stood up and said no more funding for schools that don’t teach the core curriculum? Where would the Haredim get the money to operate the schools that are so dear to them?

In all advanced economies, the state enforces a core curriculum. Many require it not only of public schools but private ones as well. Some impose the rules on public schools but allow self-funded institutions to do as they please. There’s no country, except for Israel, where schools paid for by the taxpayers don’t need to meet the standard.

The experience in Britain is instructive: Where the Haredi community decided to shun the required core curriculum and fund their schools from their own pockets the parents had no choice but to work for a living to cover the costs.

In Israel, no Haredi child would be thrown into the streets if funds were cut off. The Education Ministry now operates a government funded Haredi school network with a core curriculum.

The second error of the secular majority is to prefer confrontation over containment vis-a-vis the ultra-Orthodox. It’s tempting to do battle, but it’s almost impossible so long as the balance of political power in Israel give Haredi parties the power over secular leaders.

It would be wise to listen to the words of Justice Isaac Amit in regard to the so-called Tal Law on military conscription of ultra-Orthodox men: “The way to bring Haredim into the labor market doesn’t have to be through the Israel Defense Forces. The goal of increasing the number of Haredi enlistees can be reached the opposite way – by increasing Haredi participation in the labor force on the assumption that change in Haredi society will trickle down and gradually increase the number of recruits.”

Amit’s idea isn’t as absurd as it may sound. Even today there is a great deal of diversity in the Haredi community, including an emerging stream of modern Haredim. They are ultra-Orthox men and women who want to enjoy a middle-class standard of living and to do that are willing to study secular subjects and to hold jobs.

Research on the Haredi world conducted by the Finance Ministry backs this up. In Haredi towns, it found a correlation between the rate of employment of ultra-Orthodox men and the rate of army service. The more men working, the more men are serving in the IDF.

The correlation was also seen on a household level: The odds of a young Haredi male enlisting for the army were nil if no one in his household was employed. But if at least least one member of the household had a job, the chances grew to 17%.

In any case, secular Israelis should avoid their third mistake, of being defeatists. Emigrating from Israel is an unjustified act of despair. The secular are still the majority, and they are still the ones who hold the state together by means of their taxes and their military service. It’s time for them to use their power wisely, patiently, bravely and without despair.