Ethics at work: The conscription gap

The country pays for the virtual blanket refusal of Haredi men to serve in the army, in the loss of their contribution to national security.

By ASHER MEIR
October 1, 2010 04:31
A haredi man walks past IDF soldiers

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 army service.

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.

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There 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 market.

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.

This 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 self-definitions.

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 society.

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 exemption.

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 army.

In this way, all Israeli citizens would have the same right to decide if they will or will not serve in the army.

Paradoxically, a volunteer army could open the door to wider Haredi participation in army service.

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.

A volunteer 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 and equitable army service are worth the loss of a true “army of the people” and the costs in terms of lowered quality of conscripts is for the experts to judge.

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 increase in the number of Israelis identifying themselves as Haredim.


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