Let's Invite the ultra-Orthodox to Join Israeli Society

It is much more important and urgent today to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into society at large, to enable them to integrate into it, to be part of it, to work legally, to earn proper wages and pay taxes, than to force them into olive uniforms.

If anyone still had any doubt about the advisability and necessity of exempting ultra-Orthodox men from army service, statistics were released yesterday showing 45 percent of those getting psychological exemptions are Haredi.

The secular reactions to this figure were the usual shocked responses disparaging the ultra-Orthodox. But if the disparagers would have waited a minute, they would have understood the fascinating truth behind this statistic.

It turns out that being psychological unfit enables ultra-Orthodox youths to not only avoid army service, but also not to study in a yeshiva. That is the reason that young ultra-Orthodox men have taken the trouble to go to army psychologists and get the exemption, and not make do with the "Torah as profession" exemption.

They don't want the Torah to be their profession. They want to work. In essence, young ultra-Orthodox men are using the Israel Defense Forces to get free of the coerced yeshiva study imposed on them by their rabbis and the state.

It should be understood: Contrary to the secular scorn for Talmud study, these studies are extremely difficult and demanding. These are complex texts, huge quantities of material in languages from various periods and a tremendous world of knowledge in of itself. Few people are prepared for these studies, certainly for a way of life that includes only these studies.

So why shouldn't they go to the army? First of all, because their rabbis don't want them to. The ultra-Orthodox rabbis fear the integration of the young men into secular Israeli society. That is why they saw to it that the youths would be educated in a way that makes them view volunteer work in a charity center or observing the Sabbath as activities that serve the country the same as military service.

The few who are interested in serving in the military find it difficult to do so, because the programs for ultra-Orthodox soldiers, especially the Nahal units, are perceived as a solution for those leaving the ultra-Orthodox fold, not really a prestigious or moral option.

In this way a situation has been created in which many ultra-Orthodox men are registered in yeshivas, but in fact work illegally, getting paid under the table. The black economy is so big in the ultra-Orthodox sector that there are those who estimate that no less money changes hands in Bnei Brak than in Tel Aviv "with all its towers," as an ultra-Orthodox friend told me this week.

On the face of it, wholesale exemption of the ultra-Orthodox from army service is really unequal treatment. But they don't serve anyway, and in fact three committees that have examined compulsory military service in the past decade (the Sheffer, Ben Bassat and Brodet panels ) found that the army has a manpower surplus.

It is much more important and urgent today to invite the ultra-Orthodox to join society at large, to enable them to integrate into it, to be part of it, to work legally, to earn proper wages and pay taxes, than to force them into olive uniforms.

Years of ego and ethos wars between the rabbinical and secular establishments leave only two options: die for your country or suffocate yourself under the tent of the Torah. In this matter the two sides are cooperating: in both cases the issue is death, not life.

The state and the hegemony in Israel are still secular, and the state bears the responsibility to free the ultra-Orthodox from compulsory military service, to create more institutions of higher learning for them and enable them to become part the country.

Moreover, Israeli society should take responsibility for its character: acknowledge gains from military service, enable individuals who are gifted in the realms of culture and academics to grow and flourish, and create a society that is an attractive and meaningful alternative worth joining.