It’s time to motivate rather than pay off the haredi community

Israelis should be grateful for the current attempt by haredi parties (with the all-bought-and-paid for collusion of the Prime Minister) to engrave in legislative stone the exemption of haredi men from military conscription. Why? Because the proposal now being bandied about should prove one thing to even the most blinkered citizen; namely that the claim of “Toratam omanutam” – of Torah being their profession, ergo justifying exemption from military service – has always been a fraud. Most haredim were never avoiding the army in order to learn Torah. They were learning Torah, if at all, in order to avoid the army.

Until now, a haredi male who sought exemption in order to learn Torah was compelled to, at least in theory, remain glued to his beit midrash seat until at least age 26. By demanding the get-out-of-yeshivah-jail card at age 21 it becomes crystal clear that most haredim are champing at the bit to escape Torah learning in favor of making money.

Indeed, for far too long, ne’er do well, average and even above average haredim have suffered. They were tethered to a grindstone of ostensible Torah learning for which they have little or no aptitude, merely in order to avoid shouldering their civic responsibility as citizens of a country called Israel. Instead of being free to wheel and deal openly, they were forced to conceal any such activity while maintaining the myth of spending 12 hours a day parsing Talmudic texts for which they had little or no aptitude, interest or patience.

In 1952 David Ben Gurion and the Chazon Ish made a historic deal to exempt 400 outstanding young scholars from the army so that they could dedicate their lives to serious Torah scholarship. This was perfectly legitimate – no less so than exempting virtuoso musicians or athletes who are, likewise, the pride of the People.

Back then, the population of Israel was 600,000. If today we were to increase the number of such exemptions proportional to our current population, the number of Torah exemptions would stand at 5,000. Instead it is now 64,000 and counting. What was originally intended for the crown jewels of Torah scholarship was loopholed into a blanket excuse for every male born under the umbra of a black Borsalino.

This was not merely a crime against every army-serving, taxpaying citizen who was then burdened with the responsibility for helping to carry an expanding population of non-productive men. It was even more so a crime against those men themselves. By forcing tens of thousands of people to live as the scholars they were not, these young men were being compelled to abandon any hope of ever finding their true calling in life. Today there are literally hundreds of thousands of haredi men who live as double failures — failures as Torah scholars and failures in every other pursuit for which they might have otherwise qualified.

Responsibility for this parlous state does not fall on haredi shoulders alone. Equally liable are self-serving secular political leaders who have consistently pandered to haredi political parties by trading military exemptions and hard treasure in exchange for their help in cobbling together a majority coalition. For the haredim it made little difference if this horse-trading was with a leftwing or rightwing party. They were, and remain, cynically available to the highest bidder.

With few exceptions, haredim have always been fundamentally opposed to Zionism and the existence of a Jewish State. They participate in none of the national or civic holidays or memorials. They refuse to utter a prayer for the welfare of the soldiers who protect them. They will not sing Hatikvah. With a single exception (the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak) no Israeli flag ever flies over any of their campuses, institutions or communities. However, they are shrewd enough to play political football in order to squeeze whatever they can from the very nation they don’t believe has any right to exist prior to the arrival of the Messiah. Indeed, they never refer to Israel the country. They refer only to “Eretz Yisroel” a geographic location, not the actual state. Their preferred lingua franca is Yiddish, not Hebrew.

Hence, for all intents and purposes, they are an alien body living in the land, and have no more allegiance or connectivity (and arguably even less) to the State than do many among the Arab population. After all, quite a few Arabs become doctors, pharmacists, engineers etc. and some actually serve in the military.

The question is, how best to deal with the existence of a growing alien, if not outright hostile, community that demonstrates zero desire to become part of the greater socio-economic fabric.

A first step – and one that could have a powerful domino effect – would be for the leading Zionist parties to make a pact that under no circumstances would any of them include haredi political parties in any governing coalition.

Initially such a pact may result in a series of stillborn elections. But ultimately most voters would come to realize that a vote for a marginal party is a vote wasted, and a real Zionist majority government would eventually emerge.

This would be a blessing all around — especially to the rank and file haredi. By being cut off from the welfare trough they would be left with little choice but to do what it takes for everyone else to put bread on their tables … not to mention provide roads and police and utilities and airports and hospitals and agriculture. By weaning them of their dependency they, as individuals and as a community, would be compelled to mature and actually follow the laws of the Torah and of the Talmud to defend the land and to work for a living. And they would discover, mirabile dictu, that one can remain very pious, and allocate time every day for prayer and Torah and still be a productive, law-abiding citizen.

However, the question remains what to do until such time as our secular politicos have sufficient integrity to make such a bold and honest decision.

They say economics is the dismal science. Yet, by comparison, haredinomics makes the conventional kind seem transparent and straightforward. Yes, there are dysfunctional haredim who are genuinely poor. But a great many, if not most, manage to live a fairly middle class lifestyle with little, if any, visible source of legitimate income. What’s more, despite being blessed with many children, many haredim are somehow able to purchase – or at least provide the down payment on – apartments for their newlywed children. This is something very few normative Israelis can do for their far fewer offspring. Brand new 5 room flats in exclusively haredi neighborhoods are snapped up before the first hole is dug in the ground. Entire swaths of secular Jerusalem are bought up by cash-toting haredi blockbusters.

It is not the purview of this article to delve into the layers and nuances of haredinomics. That would make for a fascinating doctoral dissertation. But the fact is a great many haredim seem to have little problem indulging in a cash-fueled lifestyle that belies their presence on the poverty rolls.

At any given time, one can see gangs of military-age haredi young men gallivanting in Europe, visiting the graves of dead rabbis and otherwise enjoying themselves while they are supposed to be sitting and learning Torah. Surely it is not their yeshiva stipend that is financing these excursions. At the same time, their secular and religious Zionist counterparts are defending our borders on the land, in the air and at sea. Clearly, for many haredim at least, there is cash available for what interests them.

In light of all this, and the fact that there is really nothing we can do to integrate them into the country’s defense, it would make sense to eliminate any pretense of Torah study, or any age threshold at which time they can be emancipated from the charade of learning. Instead there should be a fee that they would have to pay in exchange for military exemption. Perhaps 250,000 shekels would be a fair sum. Any haredi boy who wishes to avoid both Torah and the military would have to pay this exemption fee which would go into a fund to benefit combat soldiers. If the 64,000 haredim who currently dodge the draft were each to have paid this sum, the benefit to our defenders would be significant.

On the other hand, the prospect of having to purchase one’s indolence for 250,000 shekels might motivate a critical mass of haredi young men to opt for IDF or genuine national service. This would have a huge and positive impact not only on our country, not only on their individual lives, but on the haredi community as a whole as it comes to grips with the reality of thousands of young men who both serve and remain faithful to their religious ideals.

It should be our collective hope that our haredi brothers will one day disabuse themselves of their self-enforced alienation and the concomitant charades and chicanery, and choose to become part of the greater whole without compromising on their religious practices. But for this to happen they need encouragement. And the best incentive available is economic. We must stop rewarding recalcitrance if we wish to foster a greater sense of self-reliance. By doing so we will be giving the greatest possible gift both to ourselves and to them.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.