I give up. It is time for me to admit that—with very few exceptions—young men in Israel’s haredi community will not go into Israel’s army.
I find it difficult to say this because I have always advocated for political measures to compel their conscription. Their failure to serve is a terrible injustice. Those who give up years of their life to protect Israel from enemies bent on her destruction are infuriated by those who refuse to share this burden. And tragically, this failure to serve is a primary reason why so many non-religious Israelis view Judaism with contempt. If Torah becomes an instrument to enable some to avoid the responsibilities of citizenship in the Jewish state, the inevitable result will be to sully the banner of Torah.
There is nothing in the experience of the Jewish people to justify the massive number of exemptions now granted to the haredim. As I have argued previously in these pages, full-time Torah study has always been reserved for a tiny elite of outstanding scholars; it is for the ilui (the Talmud prodigy) and not the average man. And some authorities, such as Maimonides, have said that even the most scholarly should refrain from full-time study that requires support from the community.
The Tal Law, which regulates such matters, will be considered by the Knesset in the next few months, and Israel, therefore, is debating this issue yet again. While my heart is with those who demand that a way can be found to force young haredi men into the Israel Defense Forces, the simple fact is that it won’t happen, and other things are now more important.
The numbers speak for themselves. Approximately 40,000 haredi men are classified as full-time Torah students, and thus are exempt from military service. Approximately 2000 haredim are exempted yearly. Despite years of intensive efforts to entice haredim into army units that are sensitive to their special needs, the total number of men who have signed up is less than 3000. Furthermore, there is no chance that the rabbinical leaders will relent on his matter; if the laws were to be changed, the rabbis would counsel resistance, and Israel’s army does not have the capacity to round up haredi draft evaders and prepare them for army life.
In the meantime, Israel is facing an economic crisis. It is not a crisis of recession; thankfully, Israel’s economy is vital and expanding. Rather, it is an absence of human resources. The haredim are 7% of Israel’s population, and their numbers are growing. But only 40% of ultra-Orthodox men are employed. (A large number of Israel’s Arabs are also not employed—and this too is a very serious problem that must be addressed.)
As painful as it is for me to say this, I find myself agreeing with proposals such as those by General Elazar Stern, who has called for a blanket 10-year exemption from army service for haredim. This is unfair, and indeed outrageous, but Israel’s well-being makes it necessary.
On the other hand, it only makes sense if steps will be taken to draw—in fact, to push—these men into the work force. And the only way to do that is to significantly reduce the subsidies that the haredim receive from the government for their yeshiva studies. Without this funding, young men will have no choice but to get training and find work to support their families.
There is nothing politically easy about this, but it is more likely than an end to draft exemptions. And as Stanley Fischer, the governor of Israel’s Central Bank, recently declared, current employment trends are simply unsustainable. The time has come for the Prime Minister and the government to show some courage, and to do what is necessary to get the haredi community back to work.