Sharing the burdens

The haredi community has benefited greatly from the Jewish state; the time has come to help share the burdens.

January 11, 2011 23:09
3 minute read.
A haredi man walks past IDF soldiers

soldiers haredi 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

In an ideal world the conscience of all able-bodied Jewish men would impel them to share in the ongoing burden of defending Israel from its many enemies. In the absence of such an idyllic reality this week’s cabinet decision to make major reforms in IDF draft policy should be praised. Its main fault is, that as a cabinet decision not anchored in legislation, it can easily be reversed.

In the first decades after the establishment of the State of Israel, when the armed forces served as David Ben- Gurion’s Zionist melting pot for re-socialization, haredi leaders’ complaint about secular coercion in the IDF was credible.

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However, in recent decades, cultivating a robust multiculturalism within the ranks of the IDF has become essential to maintaining the “people’s army” ethos. That some IDF soldiers swear an oath of loyalty on the New Testament, gender equality, the ascendancy of “peripheral” groups to command ranks once dominated by kibbutzniks are all signs of this change.

The IDF has also reached out to haredi soldiers. Via frameworks such as the Nahal Haredi, a strictly gendersegregated environment that provides regular Torah classes, access to spiritual guidance and glatt kosher food, the IDF has gone out of its way to accommodate haredi needs. A parallel process has taken place in National Service, which allows haredi young men to serve one or two years within their communities.

Despite these efforts, however, the results have so far been disappointing. The haredi population is growing, and with it the number of haredi 18-year-olds every year who choose to defer being drafted. Indeed, the growth of that latter number seems to be outpacing efforts by the IDF and National Service authorities to draw them away from the yeshiva and into service.

In 2010, about 5,500 18-year-olds received IDF deferments to learn in yeshiva, compared to an average of 3,400 in the past five years. At the same time, just 900 haredi men served in IDF programs tailored to their needs, and another 1,000 did national service.

Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, speaking in Holon recently to parents of drafted soldiers, warned that if the present trend of haredi and other service-avoiders continues unabated, half of all eligible 18-year-olds will be opting out of the IDF within a decade, resulting in the collapse of the people’s army ethos.

In light of Israel’s looming security challenges, the ramifications of this trend for an IDF increasingly strapped for quality manpower are ominous. But the damage to the economy is no less critical.

Since they can’t work until they perform mandatory military service or until they are old enough to receive an exemption, just 40% of able-bodied haredi men are gainfully employed or searching for work, compared to 82% in the non-haredi Israeli population and an OECD average of 83%. It is no surprise that 55% of haredi families live under the poverty line.

This makes for a nasty combination of low GDP per capita and ever rising per-capita expenditure on welfare transfers. It is no wonder that Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer warned in July that the high rates of haredi unemployment are “unsustainable” from an economic perspective.

ON THIS gloomy backdrop, the government’s approval this week in a 23-1 vote of a plan backed by Ashkenazi and Maj.-Gen. Avi Zamir, head of the IDF’s personnel division, as well as the haredi political leadership, is a long-awaited realistic compromise to the ongoing stalemate.

If everything goes as intended, the plan will bring 65% of haredim turning 18 in coming years into military or national service by 2015.

Critics say even this proposal undermines the people’s army ethos by making it easier to receive exemptions or to get away with just one year of national service instead of three years of army service without paying the price of extended unemployment. However, maintaining the status quo is untenable. And attempting to force haredim to serve full military service will only lead to a haredi backlash and further postponements that Israel cannot afford.

In traditional Jewish philosophy it is believed that emotions are influenced by one’s actions. Performing positive acts, such as mitzvot, have an ameliorating affect on the psyche. Perhaps as more haredi men don uniforms and serve their country, or perform some kind of national service, this will have a ripple effect on the collective haredi conscience.

After all, the haredi community has benefited greatly from the Jewish state. Many of the old ideological battles are over. The time has come to help share the burdens.

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