Israel's ultra-Orthodox Win Even When They're in the Opposition

Nehemia Shtrasler
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Police scuffle with ultra-Orthodox men protesting plans to draft them into the army.
Nehemia Shtrasler

About every decade or so, a miracle happens: A government that doesn’t include the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, is formed. It happened in 2003 under Ariel Sharon, in 2013 under Benjamin Netanyahu and now in 2021 under Naftali Bennett. Each time it happens, the government passes important reforms that propel us forward. The ultra-Orthodox minority, represented by Arye Dery, Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, can’t stop it. They sit in the opposition.

This week, that model was upset. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a special bill for the Haredim that’s the epitome of groveling and submission. The legislation makes a laughingstock of the notions of “equally sharing the burden” and “the people’s army.” Once it’s passed by the Knesset, the Haredim will be able to shirk army service very easily. And the bizarre thing is that this law will pass when we have a government without Haredim; they’ve won from the opposition, too.

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The new bill sets ridiculous draft targets for the ultra-Orthodox: 1,566 this year, 1,691 next year and 2,131 in 2025. And to make it easier for them to reach these minuscule goals, the definition of “who is Haredi” has been greatly expanded. Anyone who ever studied in a Haredi school but has since abandoned that way of life and turned secular will be considered ultra-Orthodox for the purposes of the quota.

The same goes for all the young people who were born into Haredi families but gave up religion long ago, all the newly religious who join the army, all the Chabad Hasidim who also serve, and all the shababniks, who drop many ultra-Orthodox norms and barely know what the inside of a yeshiva looks like.

As a result, yeshiva students will be able to remain in their “city of refuge” without any problem. The quota will be filled by the “pseudo-Haredim,” and if it still isn’t filled, enforcement measures will be impossible against the draft dodgers. No fines and no arrests. The only thing possible will be financial sanctions on yeshivas that don’t meet the quota, a prospect that’s totally laughable.

The time has come for us to understand that the Haredim’s defiant refusal to serve in the army doesn’t derive from religious reasons. They just don’t want their kids to get hurt. They’d rather see the secular donkey get hurt, or even pay with his or her life, as they defend the Haredim and the country. The ultra-Orthodox want their sons to go on with their lives undisturbed.

Haredi legislators are sent to the Knesset to ensure that there will be no military funerals in Bnei Brak, the heavily ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv. Haredi mothers and fathers are used to sleeping well at night, so why bother them?

And if we’ve given up on getting the Haredim to enlist, the only thing left is to encourage them to work for a living. If we won’t be sharing the military burden, longtime critics Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman say, at least let’s share the burden of earning a livelihood. To this end, the military exemption age for them was lowered to 21.

But the Haredi yeshiva student is no dummy. He won’t readily give up the good life in a kollel, a yeshiva for married men, or the high status he enjoys in ultra-Orthodox society and in his close circle.

Why should he work at strict hours and for low pay (he never studied a core curriculum) when the state is giving him all sorts of stipends, subsidized rent, discounts on National Insurance and the health tax, 90-percent discounts for day care and municipal taxes, and many more breaks? What’s it to him if his wife cooks and cleans and takes care of the children while also working outside the home to support the family?

What’s needed is a fundamental change of approach; no more of these convoluted bills that enable draft dodging. We must start treating the Haredim equally and without paternalism. They must be drafted at age 18 without quotas, without exemptions, without “the Torah is his occupation,” without tricks.

This is the only way to achieve an equal sharing of the burden. It’s the right way. It’s the way to avert a rebellion by religious-Zionist and secular young people who will no longer agree to bear the military burden alone. It’s also the way to integrate the Haredim into society and the workforce.

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