Though Sunday’s planned vote was postponed, the cabinet is soon expected to approve a bill that would set new rules for drafting haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men. Whether the bill can also pass the Knesset and survive a court challenge is less clear. What is certain, however, is that the proposal is outrageous.The bill would let married haredim age 22 or older and unmarried haredim age 24 or older do a one-year stint in the emergency services (police, fire department, ambulance service, etc.) instead of the three-year army service required of most other Jewish men. They would then be free to work or attend university. Alternatively, haredim could avoid service altogether by staying in yeshiva until age 28, down from 30 currently. They would then be transferred from the draft pool to the reserves, enabling them to work or attend university as well. However, it is unlikely that the army will ever call them up since they will have not received training.
In short, the bill would legally exempt haredim from army service. And that’s why the Finance Ministry is pushing it: Its argument is that the army can survive without the haredim, but the economy cannot.
Given the high haredi birthrate, which has demographers projecting that haredi population will double by 2022, the percentage of working adults will soon be insufficient to support a prosperous modern economy unless the norm in which most haredi men don’t work is reversed, the treasury argues. And the greatest barrier to haredim entering the work world is fear of being drafted if they forfeit their deferment by leaving yeshiva: Most haredi rabbis vehemently oppose army service, believing it encourages young men to abandon religion. Therefore, the only solution is to eliminate this barrier by exempting haredim from army service entirely.
Clearly, the treasury’s fear for the economy isn’t unwarranted. Nevertheless, this approach has two serious flaws.
First, the presumption that the army can do without haredim only holds if non-haredim continue serving at their present rates: Even now, the army is complaining of a manpower shortage. But non-haredi enlistment almost certainly won’t continue at its present rate if this bill passes, because it raises discrimination to an intolerable level.
The current situation, in which most haredim don’t do army service and most non-haredim do, is already highly discriminatory. What makes it marginally tolerable, however, is that haredim pay a price for this privilege which most non-haredim wouldn’t want to pay: They spend long years in yeshiva without either working or attending university, so they enter the job market only years after their non-haredi peers and without a comparable education. Thus those who choose this path generally condemn themselves to lifelong poverty.
But the new bill would let haredim and non-haredim enter university or the work force at almost the same time. A married haredi could finish his mandatory service at age 23. That compares to 21 for ordinary soldiers, 23 for hesder soldiers (who combine Torah study with army service) and 22 to 25 for soldiers who become officers or join special units that require extended service.
Thus instead of haredim being penalized for not serving, the penalty would fall on those who do serve: Not only would their service be three times as long, but they, unlike the haredim, would be risking their lives during it. Even worse, they would then face 30 days of reserve duty every year for the next two decades, while haredim would not – making army veterans less attractive to future employers than their Haredi peers. Under those circumstances, who would want to serve?
Moreover, evasion would be easy. A few years in yeshiva would suffice to qualify for the haredi track – hardly intolerable for the majority Israeli Jews who define themselves as traditional or religious. And parental pressure to do so would certainly swell.
In short, this bill could destroy the army. And without the army to defend it, there will be no Israeli future for the treasury to worry about.
But there’s another reason why this bill is appalling: It was submitted just when there is finally reason to believe that haredim can be persuaded to serve in the army.
Haredi enlistment jumped 25 percent this year compared to 2009, thanks to a raft of new programs for haredim created by a group of visionary army officers in recent years. The haredi combat unit Nahal Haredi celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, and the army now plans to set up other Haredi combat units. A program to train haredim as air force technicians resulted in a whopping 60% of the haredi recruits applying for officers’courses. A new program to induct haredim into intelligence has also been a success.
In all cases, the key was to stop demanding that haredim do all the adapting and instead make accommodations for haredi norms. Haredi soldiers get special food that meets their kashrut standards; they work in all-male environments; their day includes mandatory Talmud study; and married soldiers get generous stipends.
All this costs money, which makes the treasury unenthusiastic. But unlike the government’s bill, it holds promise of finally ending the poisonous division between those who serve and those who don’t, instead of perpetuating it: As these programs gradually prove that army service is compatible with remaining haredi, more and more haredim will be willing to enlist.
And ultimately, they may well move beyond the strictly haredi tracks, just as religious Zionists did. Once, most religious Zionists did hesder. But since only 16 months of the five-year hesder program are spent in army service, hesder soldiers can’t become officers or join special units, and young religious Zionists grew increasingly unhappy with this. So two decades ago, the first mechina opened: a one-year yeshiva program followed by three years of regular army service. Since then, mechinot have proliferated, and religious Zionists now account for 31 percent of all infantry officers.
It’s hard to imagine a better use of state money than encouraging haredim to follow a similar path. Now that the army finally seems to have found the key, the government should be throwing all its resources behind this effort instead of pushing legislation that would kill it in its cradle.