Autonomy for haredim

Majority of haredim do not accept the present Jewish state, so why not grant them independence?

Haredi men attend a job far in J'lem 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi men attend a job far in J'lem 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The destructive tango between national and haredi interests cannot go on forever.  If it continues, both sides will lose, and we all will be living in a demographically unviable state. A taxpayer base that is shrinking relative to the greater population has made its resentment known, but their qualms will appear minor compared to the bankruptcy and inevitable security disaster that will occur if there aren't enough available military recruits. 
This shortage will occur not only because of the diminishing numbers of secular and national religious soldiers, but because even non-haredim will increasingly opt not to serve. In fact, this is already happening.
The endless chit-chat about Tal Law, Nahal Haredi, and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz's pronouncements on the importance of increased haredi presence in the military is all meaningless.
The dirty little secret is that a majority of Nahal Haredi soldiers are not haredim, they are “HaRDaL” (ultra orthodox nationalist). Indeed, the overwhelming majority of haredim do not avoid the army in order to study Torah, they study Torah in order to avoid the army. Only a fool refuses to recognize this.
If the state granted haredim a blanket pass on military service, their yeshivot (Jewish educational institutions) would empty out and a majority of their young men would eventually find gainful employment.
Among haredim, the problem is not fear of losing religious faith by serving in the IDF. The core problem is that most haredim do not accept the idea of a Jewish state – nor have they ever. In a strange way they insist on living in a kind of psychological exile, as defined by us versus them – the “yidden versus the goyim."  Just as in Poland and Russia, where it was virtually a mitzvah to avoid conscription and to cheat the government,  passing the buck in the Zionist state is considered at least as legitimate, perhaps even more so.
No amount of pandering is likely to change this. Haredim do not live in Israel.  They live in Eretz Yisroel, which, for the time being happens to be controlled by the sort of Jew with whom they want no contact. Some are highly principled and refuse to take any direct material help from the government. The Brisker Yeshiva, for example, is uncompromising in its opposition to the Zionist state and has a mandatory weekly lecture excoriating the state and railing against the sin of its existence. 
The majority of haredim, however, are not quite so principled.  If there is money for the taking, they will take it. If this means having to field carefully selected operatives in the Knesset, then this is the course they take.  But of course, no matter how much power these haredi advocates wield in the government, they refuse to become ministers in order to display their rejection of the state. Case in point: the Ministry of Health is headed by "deputy” minister Rav Litzman. Refusing the title of “minister” allows him freedom from the taint of being a cabinet member in a government which he does not recognize.  Of course his hypocritical demurral at the title of minister does not in any way make him and his party less hungry for the power of the office.
Boys from haredi homes who choose to abandon the haredi lifestyle are implored by their parents to nevertheless avoid military service. A son in the IDF is a far greater disgrace than a son who merely strays from the path. IDF service stigmatizes the entire family and damages the matchmaking prospects of the soldier’s siblings. As United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni said, “Yeshiva students will choose jail over the army."
No amount of sycophantic visits by Israeli officials to haredi sages will ever result in more than a polite exchange of greetings. The two worlds are incompatible. Pandering to haredim, offering more and more money, only increases their moral corruption and compromises their core values with nothing meaningful to show in exchange.
The impotence of these arrangements is why it may make sense to simply separate from the majority of haredim by granting certain areas independence from the state of Israel. These could include a major swath of northwestern Jerusalem, most of Bnei Brak, part of Bet Shemesh, Beitar Illit and Kiriat Sefer.
This new Haredistan would receive no representation in the Knesset.  Its young men would not have to serve in the IDF whether or not they are studying Torah. These autonomous areas would be responsible for their own infrastructure, electrical power, police, public transportation, hospitals and medical care, social welfare and school systems, all run according to their own rules.
Citizens of Haredistan would be free to enter Israel at will. There would be no checkpoints, no visa requirements, no limits on their ability to move about, and no barrier to their moving to Israel proper. But they would have their own passports and diplomatic relations with the outside world.  By virtue of their location, Haredistanis would enjoy the same military protection as the State of Israel and have no need for an army or air force of their own. But home-front security would be their responsibility.
The benefits for haredim would be obvious.  They would no longer need to pretend to study Torah and could instead acquire skills to find jobs and create businesses.  Haredim in America, England, Belgium and elsewhere are very astute, and many do remarkably well in business. There is nothing about religious extremism that inherently retards economic achievement.
The benefit to the State of Israel would be manifold. For openers, the government would save billions of shekels each year by no longer having to support tens of thousands of families headed by willfully unemployed men.  Secular and national religious young men and women would no longer shoulder an unfair security burden. The percentage of households paying national and municipal taxes would radically increase. The ever-increasing pressures to conform to draconian haredi standards of modesty would evaporate instantly. And finally, our rabbinate would be unshackled from the haredi stranglehold, and the citizens of Israel could enjoy interfacing with moderate rabbis who are sensitive to the needs and realities of conventional people. This could only help close the frightening chasm between religious and secular Israelis.
Haredim who choose to live outside of Haredistan would be subject to all the laws of the state, with military conscription or genuine national service required of all their young men and women.  The automatic welfare that is virtually a birthright for all able-bodied Haredi men would stop.  Haredi schools within Israel would have to teach the core curriculum necessary to create functioning citizens who can go out and work.  Anyone who refuses to accept these minimal standards of civic responsibility would have the choice of relocating to Haredistan or being denied social welfare benefits or the right to work.
Indeed there is no downside to such a plan, at least not for the citizens of Israel. As for the haredim, there would be some initial growing pains and adjustment as they suddenly find themselves responsible for their own livelihoods.  This would take some time, but the result would be a far healthier haredi society that interacts more with its two neighbors. In fact, the time may come when a self-sustaining haredi world comes to terms with the reality of operating a sustainable society, and a re-amalgamation may become possible.  Imagine, Jewish unity.  But it has to start somewhere.
The writer is an award winning creative director and marketing consultant who spends his mornings studying in a Jerusalem kollel.