Forget the Tal Law, It’s All About Education

It has taken just two months for a concerted attempt to regulate ultra-orthodox (haredi) military service to collapse.  Charged with replacing the redundant Tal Law with a mechanism to ‘equalize the burden’ of national service, the Keshev Committee has unravelled in the face of numerous disagreements on the ultra-orthodox and Arab contribution.  However, if we are to embark on a real sharing of the national burden as a whole, the dispute over military enlistment must eventually give way to a more fundamental and potentially bitter debate over education.

That is not to say that the struggle for a universal draft or equivalent civilian service is not worthwhile, far from it.  Each Israeli citizen, religious, secular, Arab or Jewish, is afforded equal rights. By the same token, all must be subject to equal responsibilities. The stark contrast between young recruits in boot camp and their ultra-orthodox counterparts studying in yeshiva is the most visible and emotive example of the disparity in Israeli societal duty.   Yet, the battle for equal social responsibility between the ages of 18-21 is a largely symbolic struggle.  In reality, the IDF will continue to operate effectively with or without a large influx of haredi recruits.  Equally, the existence of hospitals, care homes and other possible avenues for national service does not depend on ultra-orthodox participation.  Quite probably, an extra injection of cash rather than an extra pair of hands would be far more useful for them.  A just and fair national service remains fundamental to our sense of national cohesion, but ultimately the IDF and other vital institutions would survive ultra-orthodox refusal to participate.

Sadly, the same cannot necessarily be said of our economy, which may appear in good shape, given that modest growth continues despite global financial uncertainty.  Yet, in reality, prosperity is threatened by the dual long-term trends of poverty which has climbed from 18% in 1997 to 24% in 2010 and increasing income inequality.  Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer’s assessment is unequivocal – this negative economic projection is largely shaped by haredi reluctance to participate in the workforce.  Pointing out that only 40% of ultra-orthodox men (and it should be noted 20% of Arab women) are employed, Fischer is clear that the status quo is economically unsustainable.  In April, he gave a sharp warning that the only two outcomes will be “ultra-orthodox cooperation with the rest of the population or social conflict.”  One way or the other though, Fischer is adamant, “it cannot go on”.

What makes the outlook so bleak is that even if the haredi sector were willing to throw itself into the workforce it is woefully ill-equipped for employment.  While useful and meaningful national service might help redress the balance, it cannot make up for an ultra-orthodox generation growing up with little or no useful skills. Incredibly, the state continues to fund an independent haredi education system which focuses almost exclusively on religious instruction shunning secular subjects and civic education.  Ultra-orthodox leaders argue that the state must continue to facilitate and fund such sub-standard schooling in the name of religious freedom.  Yet with Israel facing the prospect of drowning under the weight of the non-working, it is a freedom which is being irresponsibly exercised to the detriment of the national interest.

Quite simply, there will come a point where the status quo becomes unsustainable.  In 2010, 20% of Jewish secondary school pupils were educated in the ultra-orthodox system, which also accounted for a full 25% of Jewish first-graders.  In other words, in less than fifteen years time, one quarter of Jewish high-school graduates will be haredi students set to burden rather than boost the Israeli workforce.  Dan Ben-David of the apolitical Taub Center for Social Policy Studies makes the grim prediction that “In 20 years, there is a risk we will have a third-world population here which can’t sustain a first-world economy or army”.

Unless drastic changes take place, the military burden currently under discussion will soon be superseded by an unbearable economic burden.  Given the virulent ultra-orthodox objection to military service, the chances of their acquiescence to root and branch changes in their education system appear remote at best.  In the debate over military service, ultra-orthodox Knesset member Moshe Gafni has claimed that yeshiva students would rather go to jail than be drafted, stating “we cannot compromise on this at all… anyone whose heart desires to study Torah must be allowed to learn Torah, without quotas and without conditions.”  This remember, is a response to the simple concession of placing full-time Torah studies on hold for a mere three years.  We can only assume that the haredi response to a long overdue overhaul of the education system which has become their prized possession would be even tougher, more uncompromising and wholly unbending.

The ultra-orthodox sector is certain to fight tooth and nail to preserve an education system incompatible with the modern world.  In doing so, they are battling for nothing more than a dangerous pyrrhic victory.  The current educational reality endangers the very economic future of the country, which will ultimately prove damaging to every Israeli citizen, ultra-orthodox and all.  The time has come for haredi leaders to combine their commitment to Torah study with a commitment to the future prosperity of the State of Israel.  Ultimately, whether they like it or not, all our futures may depend on it.

About the Author
With over a decade of experience working with governments, politicians, NGOs and Jewish organizations in Israel and abroad, I hope to bring a fresh look at some of today's big issues.