This week Israelis were outraged, first by El Al’s insistence on moving two female passengers so that ultra-Orthodox men wouldn’t have to sit next them and then by a judge ordering Tel Aviv to allow sexual segregation at a Chabad rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
But however much Israelis are outraged by gender segregation, they remain worryingly indifferent to the much bigger problem of fully integrating ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israeli society in general and the workforce in particular. Indeed, as media outlets and social media raged and the CEO of Nice Systems said his company would boycott the airline (in a rare act of protest from the Israeli corporate world), the government quietly advanced legislation on the conscription of Haredi men that would do little to address the problem of draft evasion in the community.
The proposed legislation not only abandons the idea of drafting significant numbers of Haredim but, more critically, it does nothing to increase Haredi employment.
Even worse, the new draft regime will be enshrined in law, not in an emergency order like past draft reforms, making it much more difficult to change in the future.
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The Defense Ministry, which drew up the new framework, did not set ambitious goals for Haredi conscription — in the hope of winning over the political leadership. Indeed, the target rates of growth in the number of ultra-Orthodox men who serve in the military are below those of the past decade. The economic sanctions it proposes for yeshivot that fail to meet these low bars will not have a significant effect on Haredi society.
The plan is just enough, its architects hope, to satisfy the High Court of Justice, which gave the government until September to come up with a way of more fairly distributing the burden of military service.
So far, the formula is a political success. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman does not himself like the proposal but is nevertheless supporting it, as are most other coalition lawmakers. Even opposition Arab MKs are being roped into a deal that would trade their support in exchange for dropping the hated “muezzin law.” Everyone fears that failure to pass the law could give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an excuse to call early elections.
But political expediency will create a historic error. The law will enable the great majority of Haredi men to remain in their yeshivas until age 24, at which point they can get a draft exemption, pursue secular studies and find a job.
On paper that sounds like a reasonable solution, except that experience shows that an ultra-Orthodox man at that age stands virtually no chance of obtaining a nonreligious education and finding productive employment on which he can support a family.
In the 15 years after the first stab at draft reform (the Tal Law) and the sharp cuts in government allowances, Haredi men began to join the workforce. Their labor force participation rate peaked three years ago at 54%. Although that’s far from the 90% rate for other Israeli men, the Haredi rate has since retreated to just 50% thanks to a 2015 coalition agreement removing the threat of sanctions over shirking the draft and an increase in allowances.
Without raising the labor force participation rate for Haredi men and improving their job skills and productivity through education and training, Israeli economic growth will slow down. The Bank of Israel estimates that the country’s growth potential will fall to just 0.5% annually from 1.4%.
The new draft framework ensures that is what will happen by creating a pathway for young men to avoid school and employment. And it won’t just army service they are avoiding but earning the kinds of income that are subject to taxes and pay for the tanks and the planes being manned by others.