Rebuilding, together

Haredi society, numbering close to 800,000, will gradually begin sharing more of the burden of running a modern Jewish state.

December 16, 2010 21:34
3 minute read.

haredim working 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

‘Rehabilitation of haredi society and Torah scholarship after the Shoah makes up an integral element in the Jewish people’s establishment of the State of Israel. However, the sharp rise in this [haredi] population... necessitates adopting measures that foster haredi cooperation in meeting Israel’s security and economic challenges while at the same time preserving and respecting its cultural uniqueness.”

These are the diplomatically phrased opening lines of explanation for a radical government reform designed to encourage – not coerce – thousands of haredi men to get out of yeshiva and into the job market. On Sunday the reform, drafted by an interministerial committee headed by Prime Minister’s Office director-general Eyal Gabai, will be presented to the government for approval – an easy task to clinch since neither Shas nor United Torah Judaism appears to object.

If forecasts are correct, by the year 2013 the number of haredi men serving in the IDF or in various emergency and security positions – including the prisons service, firefighters, Magen David Adom and police – will double to 4,800. Thousands more, too old to be incorporated in some form of IDF or national service, will be permitted to enter the workforce immediately, while younger men aged 18 to 21 will be allowed to remain in yeshiva.

The reforms also offer a shortened three-month track of IDF service with annual reserve duty for slightly older haredi men (26 and older), more diverse civil service options for 22-year-olds without children, and a broadening of the IDF’s involvement in, and budget for, the integration of haredi men into its ranks.

THIS PACKAGE is an important development that was long in the making but which could not be forced before its time.

Recognition has finally sunk in among haredi leaders that the present situation is untenable. And secular Israelis now fully appreciate the need to accommodate haredi needs for the sake of attaining mutual goals.

Many elements of the reform to be passed on Sunday were first recommended by the Tal Committee a decade ago, before the situation was ripe for change. Now the self-stated goal of the Tal Committee, to heal the deep rift in our society between those who serve in the IDF and work and those who do neither, can be realized.

If all goes according to plan, the present dismal situation, in which just 40 percent of able-bodied haredi men work, compared to 82% in the non-haredi Israeli population and an OECD average of 83%, will soon change. As more haredi men enter the workforce, more of the 55% of haredi families living below the poverty line will be able to make better lives for themselves.

GDP per capita, perhaps the single most important measure of a society’s economic health, will start to rise.

The IDF, which is feeling the effects of a rapidly growing contingent of haredi 18-year-olds opting for the yeshiva hall instead of the army barracks – 5,500 this draft year and, if current trends were to continue, 7,400 in 2015 – will begin a new phase in its longstanding, essential role as Israeli society’s biggest melting pot by providing occupational training for thousands of haredi young men along with Glatt kosher food and gender segregated environments.

Potentially, as more haredi men leave their closed, parochial societies, don IDF uniforms, carry weapons and perform basic training and annual reserve service together with fellow Israelis of all ideological stripes and colors, cultural barriers will break down and misconceptions about the “other” will be replaced with significant relationships.

IT IS worth remembering that the roots of today’s untenable situation date back to an ill-fated pact made in 1978. Traditional-minded Menachem Begin’s Likud had been swept to power the previous year, opening the way for the haredi Agudat Israel party to join the coalition. For the first time, blanket exemptions from the IDF were given to haredi men – on condition that they devote 45 hours a week to their Torah studies – setting the stage for a generation of economically unproductive men who relied on welfare for their sustenance.

Now, it is to be hoped, we are entering a new, healthier phase in the rehabilitation of the Jewish people after the Shoah. Haredi society, numbering close to 800,000, or 11% of Israel’s population, will gradually begin sharing more of the burden of running a modern Jewish state.

As the Jewish people commemorate the 10th of Tevet, a date marking the beginning of the destruction of the First Temple, this latest step toward internal Jewish conciliation and productivity constitutes an admirable cause for optimism

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