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Dan Perry
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A pivot point for the Haredi draft

With an April deadline for a resolution looming, the power of the purse can impel change – if political conditions allow
Students at the Mir Yeshiva in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim listen to a lesson by Rabbi Dov Landau, head of the Slabodka yeshiva in Bnei Brak, September 19, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Students at the Mir Yeshiva in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim listen to a lesson by Rabbi Dov Landau, head of the Slabodka yeshiva in Bnei Brak, September 19, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The costly war in Gaza has brought the complicated discussion about military conscription of the Haredim to a boil. When so many are sacrificing their lives, and when the burden on the serving public is increasing to levels that are physically and economically debilitating, the fact that a fifth of the Jewish population avoids conscription is creating uncontainable rage.

An April deadline looms for drafting them like everyone else or passing legislation formally exempting them. Public anger at the Oct. 7 debacle is such that mass protests against the government are already primed to return to the streets; if the government chooses the latter path on the Haredi draft issue (here’s an analysis of the proposed law), the level of anger could become politically untenable.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s beleaguered coalition, which polls show would lose any new election, depends on the Haredim; expect delay tactics and feverish machinations. We’ve been at similar junctures before, but this one may be decisive because even without the war context, the growth of the Haredi sector has made the situation unsustainable in every way.

It’s hard to find a parallel in the history of nations for such a situation – a security environment that clearly requires a large standing army, universal conscription enacted in principle, yet such a large group being exempted (and then, of course, there’s the issue of Arab citizens). Under a certain plausible definition of the situation, it is unprecedented.

The situation turns out to be even more problematic when demographic trends are considered. With almost seven children per family on average, the ratio of the ultra-Orthodox in the population doubles with each generation. Even if the trends change and the ultra-Orthodox will not be the majority in 40 years (and I assess that indeed they won’t, due to attritions as their own situation becomes untenable), it is clear that they will constitute a huge part of the population. What can fairly be called a mass draft evasion is absurd.

As we know, the argument offered by the community’s leadership is not only that religious study is important, and not only that it is so important it cannot be delayed even for a few years, but that it contributes to security no less than military service (a few radicals even suggest that possibly more). As Israel counts its hundreds and thousands of dead, such audacity boils the blood.

The fact that almost all the Haredim vote, in one way or another, for the right-religious coalition, guaranteeing more occupation and more wars in which their vast majority will not fight, adds a rare extreme of hypocrisy to the mix. It is an insult to intelligence. It is a disgrace to Judaism and the principle of Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Ba-zeh – the notion of Jewish mutual responsibility.

Practically speaking, the current outrage is a result of Defense Ministry regulations that exempt yeshiva students, which also drives Haredim who might work to remain in a yeshiva until at least age 30 when age and family size and other factors render them reasonably safe from the draft. But the Haredi population has so exploded that this is the main factor in a current non-drafting level of 30% of Jewish Israeli men. Among Haredim, the latest available figures show that about 10% do serve.

Because of this incentive mechanism, the problem becomes deeper still – not only the evasion of military service but also the low participation in the workforce. Only about half of Haredi men work, and a significant number of these work in sometimes fictitious jobs in the vast bureaucracy of religious services in the country. Often that’s a modest livelihood – and the whole setup is a growing burden on the truly working public.

And this is not only because of the crazy mechanism that incentivizes draft evasion. It’s also a consequence of an independent educational system that does not prepare students for a modern labor market. At this point, and with all due respect to religious studies, it is simply devastating that so many Israelis do not study math, technology (a more acceptable term in the sector for “science”) and English in high school.

This entire rickety edifice simply cannot continue to stand. The economy will collapse. Society will disintegrate. There will, quite possibly, be violence. Secular people will start dodging the draft as well. Startup Nation will be as dust in the wind.

There’s not much to discuss with the Haredi leadership – they are cynics and petty politicians, and that includes many of their revered rabbis. They fear that education, service and labor will lead to dropouts from the sector, and they’re right. The fact that this is what Haredi youth themselves would choose only proves how necessary it is. No functional society can survive with such a large proportion of people devoting their whole lives to some religion.

So what to do? Give up on Israel? Put our faith in the Almighty? Quietly try to convince them one by one, taking comfort in the modest results (because yes, a tiny minority of Haredim have been compelled to serve in the army). There isn’t time.

It’s strange to hear the insistent argument that the situation cannot be changed by coercion. Why can a secular person be coerced? Most soldiers were passively coerced; had they resisted, they would have seen the prisons from the inside. Of course, it can be coerced. It just wouldn’t be pleasant. They’d raise hell and often choose prison until this stopped.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a more efficient way. Not by coercion – by budgeting.

Liberals all over the world have a strange tendency to avoid fighting for liberalism, in the name of freedom and a limitless tolerance for all sorts of madness. When this contributes to the rise of illiberalism – as is happening in Europe – it is a paradox. Israeli seculars have a further tendency to complicate things with angst, quibbling and introspection. But what Israel needs to do with this disaster is really quite simple.

Schools that do not teach a core curriculum should not receive another shekel from the state. Gradually.

A conscription law should be passed for all, with the Haredim granted a modest quota for Torah sage contributions, as in the period from David Ben-Gurion to Menachem Begin (and the Arabs should have the option of national service). Schools that significantly fall short will lose funding. Gradually.

Want to preserve the “world of the Torah”? Please – after the army, like the world of knowledge at the universities. That world also contributes to security. Maybe even more.

If somehow it really doesn’t work, we can then consider treating the Haredim the same way as the secular, meaning imprisonment for draft evasion. But it will work.

For all this to happen, the right cannot be in power. The right will never do any of this because it needs the Haredim for any majority in the Knesset, and therefore it is subject to blackmail. Since first ascending to power in 1977 the right has never once had a majority without the ultra-Orthodox. Every victory of the right in the elections – after which they formed some coalition which has sometimes been different – was defined by a simple equation: a majority for Likud plus extreme right plus national-religious plus Haredim. A loss to the right was defined by a majority for everyone else. A two-party system of sorts.

Therefore, it is nothing short of a national imperative that the right be removed from power in the next election and that the forces that replace it insist on the above plan. Core curriculum and a resolution of the draft evasion – or loss of funding.

Problems that seem unsolvable are sometimes solved quite quickly when the mind is focused. Disasters can focus the mind, and Israel is experiencing (along with the Palestinians) a disaster. Perhaps other epiphanies will come as well.

About the Author
Dan Perry is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem, and authored two books about Israel. A technologist by education, he is the Chief Business Development Officer of the adtech company Engageya and Managing Partner of the award-winning communications firm Thunder11. His Substack, Ask Questions Later, is available for subscribers at https://danperry.substack.com/. Also follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan; www.linkedin.com/in/danperry1; www.instagram.com/danperry63; www.facebook.com/DanPerryWriter/; and https://muckrack.com/dan_perry
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