Israel's Moment of Truth

A Third World economy like the kind Israel is heading toward cannot support a First World army. That's why we need an alternative to Plesner's proposals on drafting the ultra-Orthodox.

Dan Ben David
Dan Ben-David
Dan Ben David
Dan Ben-David

The Plesner committee on drafting Haredim and Arabs into the army addresses an issue of enormous magnitude that has critical implications for the future of the State of Israel. But its patchwork recommendations do not address the systemic issues that threaten the country.

Why does Israel even need a "citizen's army"? Because Israel is the only country in the world whose citizens face threats to their very lives. The Islamic wave sweeping the Middle East indicates that this threat will not be reduced in the foreseeable future.

Why have mandatory conscription to the army instead of a professional military? Because to defend this little island of 8 million people in a sea of hundreds of millions in the throes of a fundamentalist reawakening, we need the best minds that we have, the types of people who do not even consider joining professional armies in other countries. It is these people who provide the real qualitative edge that the Israeli army has over other armies.

Another existential problem: The achievements of pupils in basic core curriculum subjects in the country's Jewish secular and religious (excluding Haredi) schools is below the average of pupils in every single Western country among the 25 that are relevant for comparison. The education provided to Arab Israeli children is reflected in achievements below those of children in Third World countries like Jordan and Tunisia. The Haredi boys do not even study any core curriculum subjects after 8th grade.

Already today, Arab and Haredi children comprise about half the pupils in Israel's primary school system. While the number of children in the Jewish secular state schools was nearly constant over the past decade, rising by less than one-half of one percent, the number of Arab-Israeli pupils rose by 37 percent and the number of Haredi pupils rose by 57 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Today's children are tomorrow's adults. Children whose scholastic achievements in core subject areas are below those of children in every one of the First World countries will find it very difficult to reduce the productivity gaps between the First World and Israel that have been steadily growing since the 1970s and this refers to the children who are receiving the best education in Israel.

What about the other half, the children whose achievements are below those of Third World children, or those who do not even study core subjects? The kind of economy that they are being prepared for is clear.

End of the 'Start-Up Nation'?

However, a Third World economy cannot support a First World army, and without such an army, we will be facing an existential threat. Israel is nowhere near being a Third World country today it is indeed the "Start-Up Nation" that is still pushing the human technological envelope forward. But if we do not wake up tomorrow and act, it is clear what kind of a country we will be leaving our children.

The Plesner committee's recommendations on drafting the Haredim and Arabs completely ignore these non-military but related existential issues. Its focus on the military also misses the point.

The Israeli army does not need thousands of additional men who will sleep at home every night and cost the country huge sums, just because the majority of Haredim will already be married with children at the age that the commission recommends drafting them.

And the country certainly does not need to finance unnecessary make-work civil service positions as the currently recommended alternative option to Haredi military service.A real solution must be fair and it must provide a comprehensive solution to the primary problems.

An alternative to Plesner's proposals

I propose that the country give a draft amnesty to all Haredim who are today in ninth grade or above. They should be provided with any assistance that they want in upgrading their education so that they will be able to integrate into a modern economy. As for all pupils in 8th grade and below those who still receive some education in core subjects they will have to study a core curriculum all the way through 12th grade. They should then be drafted into the army, at the same age and under the same conditions as every other conscript (this will provide the country with four years to get organized before the first Haredi men will be drafted under this arrangement).

If Haredi Jews abroad can work with women, so can Haredi Jews in Israel whether in the workplace or the army. This is one of the core principles of a modern country. Period.

There is no need to send draft dodgers to jail. Simply close the faucet of public money that finances lifestyles of non-work and draft evasion. There will be demonstrations, but when the money runs out the lives of Israeli Haredim will begin to resemble the lives of Haredim in other countries.

The army will choose who it wants to draft and the rest should serve their compulsory enlistment time in the police. A country with about a quarter of its GDP hidden in a huge shadow economy (compared to 9 percent in the United States) is a country that needs to begin enforcing its laws, and it needs the personnel that will enable it to do so. Thus, the Haredim will receive the education that a modern country must provide all of its children, and this is how they will serve their country and begin to feel a part of it.

As for the Arab Israeli children, the problem is not a lack of interest in education, but rather a lack of in the additional resources that the country needs to provide to ensure these children receive what their parents are sometimes unable to give them. At the age of 18, Arab Israelis must also serve their country in the police force. A significant portion of the additional tax revenues from the newly uncovered sources should be directed toward the Haredi and Arab communities, so that they will directly experience the implications of living in a country with rights and obligations.

There exists a democratic-demographic point of no-return, after which it will not be possible to find a majority in the Knesset to pass the laws needed for the change in direction that will save the State of Israel. But today, over three-quarters of the Knesset Members belong to the government coalition, a unique majority unseen here in decades. This is a coalition that could guarantee there will be a future for Israel.

We have leaders who have demonstrated what bravery is on the battlefields. It is time that they put aside the polls, rediscover that courage, and channel it into navigating Israel through political minefields to a safe harbor that our parents sacrificed so much to build, and that our children will need in order to survive here.

This is Israel's moment of truth.

Professor Ben-David is the Executive Director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel and an economist at Tel-Aviv University.

What's needed is more "core" studies like math.Credit: Alon Ron



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