In conversations with senior Israeli executives, there’s that moment of small talk when people show an interest in things that don’t directly involve their business. I had the occasion to ask two of them what their sons were doing for their military service.
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Both of the fairly senior executives replied: “He’s in 8200” – a reference to the prestigious tech-oriented army intelligence unit, many of whose graduates have had lots of success in the high-tech industry. In telling me this, the two said it not only with pride, but with the sense of satisfaction that the kids’ future was secured.
When people say their children are in 8200, they mean that they are talented, but even more importantly, they're referring to that promising future in high-tech. And the kids’ army service doesn’t even involve risking their lives as it would in combat units.
Young Israeli men and women seem to have a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in quieter Western and Asian countries. They need to devote two or three years to compulsory army service while their peers in the United States, Britain or Germany are beginning university studies at age 18 and enter the job market when Israelis are planning their customary post-army treks in Asia or South America.
That’s a time lag of three years at least, but not all Israelis are stung by it. There are also those who don’t serve in the army, and that’s where the Israeli paradox becomes apparent in its fullest. It’s actually the Israelis who don’t do military service who often find themselves worse off economically.
This includes most Israeli Arabs, who are generally exempt from the draft, although Druze and Bedouin Arabs serve in large numbers. It also includes ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, who historically have been exempt from the draft to engage in religious studies.
Even though the government hasn’t stolen the stretch of their lives between 18 and 21, they don’t use these years to advance up the financial ladder. Poverty rates among Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews are much higher than in the rest of the population, and these communities are vastly overrepresented in the bottom 20% when it comes to income. This situation persists from generation to generation, perpetuating economic and social disparities.
Actually, it’s no paradox. Military service isn’t a waste of three years (or less for women), even if there are people who feel that way. On the contrary, it provides many young people who serve in the Israel Defense Forces with training and professional experience, along with networking that serves them in the job market and access to positions filled by veterans.
The IDF is an organization with a particularly high degree of mobility, giving a large number of soldiers the ability to develop professionally and advance without any relation to their socioeconomic backgrounds. But again, most ultra-Orthodox Jews and nearly all Israeli Arabs don’t do military service and aren’t part of this picture. And that’s despite the fact that the two groups together represent 30% of the country’s population.
There are two main paths to mobility in Israel: the education system and the military. Neither do their best when it comes to Arabs and Haredim, but the reasons are different.
For their own reasons, Haredim choose not to get a solid education in core subjects such as math and English, and the amount spent by the state on Haredi students is the lowest – 19,742 shekels ($5,450) annually per student on average. The Arabs do study core subjects but they don’t receive much more from the state – 20,800 shekels.
The highest per capita spending is on students in the state religious schools, which serve the larger Orthodox community, as distinguished from the ultra-Orthodox community, and which receive 33,016 shekels per student – more than the state secular school system’s 27,075 shekels. The numbers reveal clear discrimination against Arab students in funding. The Education Ministry recently began trying to address this through differential funding, which is currently going mostly to elementary schools and junior highs.
When it comes to weaker communities, the IDF has done a wonderful service to Israeli society over the years in providing a profession and sometimes also even basic remedial education. But over the past two decades, major disparities have been created regarding military service. Graduates of technology units get much more relevant professional training for the job market than combat soldiers do. From the day of their discharge, those who have worked in the forefront of technology can earn two or three times what veterans of combat units can.
And even if the differential state funding of ultra-Orthodox and Arab schools does great things, the army as a source of socioeconomic mobility still must be considered, because those who don’t serve end up in the labor market at a disadvantage. I won’t delve into the subject here of the cultural and political barriers impeding Arabs and Haredim from serving in the army, but we must acknowledge that in Israel, military service is still a major factor in providing economic mobility to those who serve, and it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.
Differential funding, higher education and affirmative action can help narrow the disparities, but they won’t bridge the gap, and anyone who says otherwise isn’t telling the whole truth.