The most pressing social, political and religious issue in Israel this year has
been the question of haredi service in the Israel Defense Forces. Although a
wall-to-wall coalition was established to address this problem, a solution has
yet to be found. Currently, unless a special legal arrangement is instituted,
haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) are to be drafted like all other Jews in
If they are forced to serve, however, widespread civil
disobedience is likely to emerge, further increasing the rift in society and
possibly leading to a culture war. The most likely scenario is that the Knesset
will try to arrive at a fair legal solution during its winter
This will require addressing the needs of three distinct
parties: the general public, which is demanding equal military service; the
haredim, who refuse to abandon their ethos of full-time Torah study for all; and
the High Court of Justice, which will review every Knesset decision in this
matter to determine whether it is sufficiently equitable.
Hashana marks a period of individual and national soul searching, this is an
appropriate time to look past the details and focus on the big picture: Why
don’t the haredim serve in the IDF? Can we accept their justifications? And, how
is a state that is both Jewish and democratic to deal with this crisis? Let’s
start with the facts: The haredi sector today accounts for about 10 percent of
Its growth rate is phenomenal – more than 5%
annually, compared with 1.8% for the general population, which can be seen from
the fact that more than one-quarter of Jewish first graders in Israel are
haredi. Obviously, any change in the nature of this sector will have a rapid and
powerful effect on all of Israeli society.
Some 52,000 haredi men have
declared that Torah study is their sole occupation and therefore have not served
in the army. Since the law prohibits them from working, only 42% of haredi men
are employed, compared with 80% for the general population.
income of a haredi household (NIS 6,100) is about half of the income of other
households, and the poverty rate in the haredi sector is soaring to alarming
Experts, including the chairman of the National Economic
Council (a division of the Prime Minister’s Office), have determined that the
combination of accelerated growth and refusal to participate in the country’s
society and economy is a recipe for disaster that may lead to economic collapse
and may damage national security, as a weakened economy will not be able to
support Israel’s security needs.
This leads to the sobering conclusion
that the realization of the haredi ethos of full-time Torah study threatens the
very survival of the Zionist enterprise.
Is this situation really
necessary from a haredi perspective? Not necessarily. Haredim in Israel explain
that they have sequestered themselves in yeshivot in order to fulfill the
commandment to study the Torah “day and night.” Although they truly believe this
explanation, it should not be accepted, as the haredi community in Israel can be
contrasted with a “control group” of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the United States
Many ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora conduct their lives
differently from their Israeli counterparts.
After several years of
yeshiva study, during which they consolidate their ultra-Orthodox identity, they
learn a trade, join the local labor force, and support a “society of learners” –
a small group of scholars funded by the community. Moreover, even in
pre-Holocaust Europe, the Torah world did not advocate collective seclusion in
yeshivot; most ultra-Orthodox joined the marketplace of life and only a select
few – the most learned of all – adopted full-time Torah study as a way of
Thus, paradoxically, in the Diaspora, the home of the “Old Jews”
who were looked down upon by Zionism, haredim chose to be productive and join
the workforce; while in Israel, the birthplace of the “New Jews,” who control
their own destiny, haredim isolate themselves and do not integrate into society
and the economy.
It seems, then, that there was some kind of internal
connection between the establishment of the State of Israel and the change in
the haredi worldview, which now mandates a life of Torah study for all haredi
men. What is the nature of this connection? The founders of political Zionism
expected that the transition from an existence in spread-out communities to one
in a sovereign state would unify a divided Jewish society and help it form one
clearly defined national identity. In practice, however, the State of Israel did
not solve the identity crisis; it intensified it. Although the state created a
Jewish public sphere – comprising territory, politics, army and law – control of
that space has been the central conflict between Jews in our
David Ben-Gurion, for example, adopted the “melting pot”
concept, and sought to imbue all Jews with a secular, nationalist, and socialist
Religious Zionism, in contrast, wants to run the state in
accordance with its religious vision of redemption, which shapes its positions
on the borders of the state, its attitude toward the judicial system, and more.
But while secular and religious Zionists wish to control the entire public
sphere, the haredim – at least so far – are interested only in their own small
domain. In both Israel and the Diaspora, their efforts are directed at
strengthening their own sector.
The nature of the challenge facing the
haredi community, however, varies with location. In the Diaspora, haredim live
in a non-Jewish state and society.
Consequently, it is relatively easy
for them to be “a Jew at home, and a man on the street.”
In Israel, by
contrast, their external environment is Jewish. Haredim, religious Jews and
secular Jews all share a common destiny, both in their internal Israeli
existence (e.g., Israeli politics) and vis-à-vis external factors (e.g., enemy
Paradoxically, this commonality among Jews is the greatest
threat to haredi identity in Israel.
THE CRUX of the issue has nothing to
do with Torah study but rather with apprehension about contact with Jews who
have different identities. IDF conscription at a young age, for example, is
liable to damage the unique identity of the next haredi generation.
adrenalin of an 18-year-old haredi runs as high as that of his secular
counterpart: driving a tank, jumping out of a plane and having unmediated
contact with secular Jews in a pup tent is liable to change him.
is in the Jewish state, where Jews are the proprietors rather than visitors,
that haredim feel threatened and barricade themselves behind “walls of
sanctity.” In contrast, in other countries, where the threat is distant and
haredi identity is relatively secure, they function in the outside
This analysis yields guidelines for an appropriate solution. The
majority of Israelis must recognize that the isolationism of the haredi
community does not stem from a desire to be parasites or exploitative, but from
a real identity crisis.
As a liberal state, Israel must respond to the
needs of this culturally threatened minority and help it protect its identity.
At the same time, however, the haredi minority must realize that its
isolationism endangers the future of the state and cannot continue
In the coming year, the Knesset will have to formulate a
new legal arrangement that strikes a delicate balance. It must include the
following: (1) The Jewish state must recognize the value of Torah study.
Accordingly, a small, spiritual and intellectual elite must be permitted to live
as a “society of learners,” similar in size to parallel groups in the US and
(2) Most haredi men must serve in the IDF. This will fulfill
their obligation to the future of the Jewish state and will open the gates of
employment to them, enabling them to join the workforce and save their community
from its abject poverty.
(3) The haredim must be able to maintain their
identity despite their army service. For this reason, the state should allow
haredim to be drafted at an older age – such as 22, when most are married with
children – when their identities are firmly established.
must be offered terms of service that will allow them to maintain their
Such service will be more costly and less efficient, but it is
a necessary concession toward a minority group facing a crisis of identity.
While full equality will not be achieved, the haredim will join all other Jews
in Israel, both symbolically and in practice.
Yedidia Z. Stern is vice
president of the Israel Democracy Institute and was a member of the Plesner
Committee for Equality in National Service. Jay Ruderman is president of the
Ruderman Family Foundation.