soldiers haredi 311.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Last week, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz had a meeting with the heads of
Israel’s largest companies, at which he announced that the current government
intends to allow Haredim who have not served in the army to enter the labor
market. This would be a revolutionary change in policy, since Israel has, from
its foundation, prohibited those who have not served in the army from working.
Yeshiva students are entitled to a deferral of service, but (theoretically) as
soon as they leave yeshiva they must join the army – there is no path for young
men to join the labor market unless they have an exemption, not a deferral, from
The motivation for such a policy switch is understandable.
The country pays once for the virtual blanket refusal of Haredi men to serve in
the army, in the loss of their contribution to national security.
seems to be no reason that the country should have to pay a second time, through
the loss of their contribution to the national economy, and then a third time
through the need for massive government transfers in order to enable them to
have a decent standard of living without normal participation in the labor
The thinking behind the intended policy switch goes something
like this: There is a group of Israelis out there called Haredim. These
individuals have proven their opposition to army service. Limiting their
employment opportunities only creates new and even more serious problems. The
best solution is just to exempt them from army service altogether.
kind of thinking works well for Israeli Arabs, who are also exempt from army
service. But there is an important difference.
Being an Arab has a very
clear definition and it is very difficult to change one’s status. By contrast,
Haredi is a word with many definitions and many
Different people would define the term quite
differently, and no matter how you define it there is a large amount of flow in
and out of this community. Thousands of people each year change their
self-identification between identification as Haredi and identification as some
other kind of Jew or even non-Jew.
Giving a blanket exemption for Israeli
Arabs will not cause thousands of people to suddenly see themselves as Arabs,
but giving an exemption for Haredim will likely result in thousands of young men
either seeking a way to change the definition of Haredi to encompass them or
actively identifying themselves with existing standards of Haredi belonging.
Given that at any given time there are always thousands of people on the fringes
of Haredi society, giving a huge subsidy to self-identified Haredim through
exemption from three grueling years of low-paid Army service could very well
lead to an explosion in the number of people identifying themselves as Haredim,
as fewer Haredim drop out and more non-Haredim join in.
The problem is
augmented when we consider how Haredi status is to be fixed. In a democratic
society, we can’t exactly grill people on their religious beliefs. Modern
Israeli society will never tolerate an inquisition or catechism, and rightly so.
The definition would likely be institutional, and institutional definitions tend
to be easy to game.
Suppose a respected Haredi rabbi, with all the proper
status, decides in perfect good faith to open a yeshiva for novices to Haredi
Who will be authorized to decide if the young men who join this
school are spiritual seekers or merely draft-dodgers? Who would we even want to
make such a subjective decision? The situation bears a striking resemblance to
the “poverty gap” we have discussed in previous columns. Suppose we want every
household to have a certain amount of income in order to enjoy a minimal
acceptable standard of living. It may be that the total gap between current
incomes and the benchmark income is very small; a relatively small number of
families are below the benchmark, and some by a small amount. But as soon as
there is a policy guaranteeing a certain minimum income, the number of low
earners is likely to skyrocket and with it the cost of the program. Likewise, a
program intended to exempt a certain fixed number of individuals from army
service could result in a skyrocketing number of exemptions.
It is hard
to know how elastic communal affiliation is in Israel, and how many people the
policy would affect. If the effect is large, it could have an important impact
on the draft pool as well as augmented feelings of unfairness of the
The only way I see to enable Haredim to join the job market
without giving a special draft exemption that could lead to an explosion in the
number of those identifying themselves as Haredi would be to have a volunteer
In this way, all Israeli citizens would have the same right to
decide if they will or will not serve in the army.
volunteer army could open the door to wider Haredi participation in army
One reason for Haredi opposition to army service is precisely
its mandatory nature which symbolizes subordination to the Zionist state.
Serving in a volunteer army would not send the same message.
army would have to take steps to make service more attractive to potential
recruits, and this could result in an army more Haredi-friendly than the current
one. In addition, once working for a living becomes the norm among Haredi men,
army service could be an attractive occupational option for a young man with a
limited secular education.
Whether a volunteer army for Israel is
feasible at all, and whether its benefits for an equitable labor market
equitable army service are worth the loss of a true “army of the people”
costs in terms of lowered quality of conscripts is for the experts to
But any other way of enabling Haredi men to join the labor market
without a requirement for army service is likely to generate a large
the number of Israelis identifying themselves as Haredim.