Finally, the taboo has been shattered. For more than 3 decades, Israeli politicians have not talked seriously about the need to get haredi men into the army and into the workplace. And haredi rabbinical leaders have not talked about it either. The politicians were silent out of fear of losing haredi support in government coalitions they hoped to create. Haredi rabbis were silent because they did not want to expose their young men to the dangers of secular culture; and furthermore, neither were they prepared to relinquish the near absolute control that the yeshiva system gives them over the lives of their people.
But all of that is now in the past. Public consciousness has been aroused among all elements of Israel’s citizenry. And the recent elections have made clear to even the most reluctant politicians that the subject can no longer be avoided. Something must be done. And whatever happens in the short term, the clock will never be turned back.
This revolution has occurred for many reasons. To some degree, the current system has simply collapsed under its own weight. Anger in the secular world has exploded as those who serve in the military demand that haredim share the burden of service; Israel’s economy has been undermined by the failure of haredim to engage in productive work that furthers the country’s economic well-being; and many in the haredi world have rebelled against the rabbinical mandate that every male must devote himself full-time to Torah study, whether or not he is suited for it and whether or not he is prepared to accept the grinding poverty that results. Matters were brought to a head when the Supreme Court in 2012 struck down the Tal Law, which provided the legal basis for haredi exemptions from the military and for the system of government subsidies to yeshiva students.
But it was last month’s election that confirmed the change of direction. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which made “sharing of the burden” a central element of its platform, became the second largest party in Israel. But support also came from Labor, Meretz, Hatnuah, and The Jewish Home. The result is that Benjamin Netanyahu, who is famously risk-averse and has always fled from this issue like the plague, has proclaimed that when his new government is formed, “sharing the burden” will be one of its guiding principles and central commitments.
Lapid, it should be said, deserves special plaudits for his role. Innumerable commentators and political leaders from rival parties have dismissed Lapid as a superficial “pretty face,” a former TV star lacking in experience, substance, and gravitas. But most of what we are hearing is ill-concealed envy; Lapid conducted a brilliant campaign, giving expression in everyday language to the matters that Israelis care about most. And he managed the issue of haredi army service with sophistication and skill, standing on principle while conveying some understanding of the difficult choices that the haredi world will face.
And now for the bad news: Despite everything noted above, I am not actually optimistic that the new government will do something meaningful on this matter. When the government is formed, I suspect that Netanyahu will insist on including Shas, and that Shas will be unyielding in its refusal to accept any significant draft of yeshiva students. The likely outcome: Netanyahu will make promises to act in the future and those promises will not be kept, or will end up being essentially symbolic rather than substantive.
In other words, the battle will continue; but I am confident that if change does not come now, it will come in the next government. Pressure is building, and it will be irresistible. Of course, there will be no single piece of legislation that will bring about the revolution that is required. Integrating the haredim into Israel society—both the army and the workplace—will be a long and complicated process, demanding much of haredim but of everyone else as well. (If you want haredim to work, others must be prepared to hire them.) But the key is for Israel’s government, finally, to have the courage to get things started.