Israel's ultra-Orthodox status quo is unsustainable - opinion

This cannot and should not continue. Long-term yeshiva study should be for true sages, not all haredim.

 Haredi men dressed in traditional ultra-Orthodox garb stand behind a group of religious IDF soldiers (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Haredi men dressed in traditional ultra-Orthodox garb stand behind a group of religious IDF soldiers

It is breathtaking, this high-wire act by the haredi parties and their enablers in the Benjamin Netanyahu government. And no one knows what to expect in a few months, when the time comes for the planned legislation formalizing the sweeping military exemption for haredi youth.

This bill would make official that which has been happening ad hoc for many years, and has been accepted by other Israelis even if through gritted teeth. But the formality and fear of irreversibility is driving the non-haredi public to distraction.

In a taste of what’s to come, secular parents’ groups are threatening mass non-compliance with mobilization orders if the bill should pass, driven by outrage at the very proposition that only non-haredi youngsters should risk their lives in defense of the realm. I feel quite confident in predicting that passage of the exemptions would set off an earthquake whose outcome could be dire.

Undeterred, elements in the coalition are planning more measures that seem calculated to cause significant unrest. Yeshiva students are to be declared equivalent to soldiers and offered the same pay from state coffers, placing them in the rarefied ranks of students around the world who are well-paid for their trouble. And there is a proposed bill to criminalize insulting the haredim (for example, suggesting they might be “draft-dodging freeloaders”), on the illogical grounds of “racism.”

Other measures among the 225 laws that have entered the legislation pipeline, or are planned, include transferring powers from the regular courts to the rabbinical courts, that are bound only by Jewish law. This would give supremacy to men over women more widely, and ease the path for gender segregation in public, which is something a number of haredim in Israel have somehow decided now is the time to get more serious about.

 United Torah Judaism (UTJ) chairman rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf is seen at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, July 28, 2022 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
United Torah Judaism (UTJ) chairman rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf is seen at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, July 28, 2022 (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

IT IS as if the coalition has decided to do everything it can to blow up the extremely delicate arrangement that has enabled the secular public to tolerate things and go about their business with a modicum of national solidarity.

On the practical side, it is hard to see how the exemption bill, if it passes, could survive challenges in the Supreme Court based on equality under the law. That, of course, is why the haredim wanted parliament to grant itself the power to override the court as part of the current government’s reforms.

And it is that proposed “override clause,” combined with the plot to hand judicial appointments to the coalition, that sparked fears of authoritarianism and set off a monumental protest movement that appears to be moving public opinion away from the right.

Will the coalition survive if the exemption bill is trashed? The haredi politicians in the Knesset, are talking a big game of bringing down the coalition. Will they really? Frankly, that would do the rest of us a favor.

In the wider haredi community, which I know from experience is far more thoughtful than those who represent them, there now appears to be some buyers’ remorse. This is perhaps evidenced in a recent editorial in haredi newspaper Yated Neeman criticizing the government. One senses all they want is the exemption bill, and if possible just a one-time “override” just to get it through and make the army go away.

There seems to be some concern among haredim that they poked the secular bear a little to close to the eye, and a backlash might result. And my assessment is that yes, there is a backlash coming. If the next government is dominated by the center, the pressure from the street to blow up the entire dysfunctional arrangement with the haredim will be huge.

This is why the haredi status quo can't continue

IT IS WORTH, I think, spending a minute looking at the basic facts.

The haredi community not only overwhelmingly refuses to serve in the military, but sticks like glue to other positions that stand out and cause damage.

First, the refusal to widely implement a core curriculum (for high school boys especially), ensuring the perpetuation of a barely-employable underclass dependent on handouts. Second, the insistence on state stipends for seminary students well into their adult years, coupled with the sanctification of “Olam Hatora” that projects to the community that there is no higher pursuit that filling these institutions with masses of haredi males.  

The result is that haredi men’s participation in the labor force hovers around a lowly 50% – and even that is only thanks to the existence of make-work positions in a massive and wholly inefficient religious bureaucracy paid for by the Israeli taxpayer.

And that taxpayer is mostly non-haredi. A Finance Ministry study last year showed the haredi sector as accounting for the lowest tax revenue per capita and by far the most negative net calculation of taxes paid to benefits received. These benefits come from all directions in a complex web containing child subsidies, municipal tax discounts, and other discounts of every kind.

All of this – the refusal to serve in the army, the economic dependency – might somehow be  sustainable if the demographic equation is reasonably static, as it is, within reason, in most situations around the world.

But it is not sustainable, economically or politically, because of the haredi birthrate of almost seven children per family. Couple that with the insularity of the community – obsessively keeping the youth away from secular society and the internet – that for now is keeping the attrition rate very low, and you get a population explosion that cannot enable the arrangement to continue.

The demographic dynamic means the haredi proportion of the population doubles every generation. Haredim are perhaps a seventh of the population now, but account for a quarter of the babies. In one generation, if this continues, it will be half.

SO MY question to my haredi friends is this: Do you, in your heart of hearts, want this situation to continue? Despite the absence of a core curriculum from many of your schools, surely you can do the math.

How will you expect the others to pay for you and defend your borders when you are the majority? Do you want the majority of people in Israel to be people who have not studied math, science and English? What is the plan? And how does this align with Judaism?

I may not be the Jewish scholar that a yeshiva education would have made of me, but I do know the following: 

Proverbs 10:4 says “lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.” 

In Pirkei Avot 3:17 it is written, “If there is no flour, there is no Torah,” underscoring the interconnectedness of material sustenance and spiritual growth. 

And in the Talmud, Kiddushin 29a, it states that “one who does not teach his son a trade, teaches him to steal.”

Indeed, Maimonides addressed the importance of gainful employment and labor consistently: 

In Mishna Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7, he emphasizes that the highest form of generosity is helping someone become self-sufficient, such as providing a person with the means to start a business or find employment. 

In The Guide for the Perplexed, Book III, Chapter 27: In this chapter, Maimonides emphasizes that a person should not neglect their physical well-being and material needs, as these are essential for fulfilling one’s spiritual and intellectual pursuits.

So, dear haredi brothers, I think you know that this cannot and should not continue. Long-term yeshiva study should be for true sages. You should allow your youth to benefit from a modern education and contribute to our combined project. You should integrate and be less insular, and stop trying to impose religion on others. Instead, you should start facing up to your responsibilities. To continue on your current path is self-defeating and unworthy in the extreme.

The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. He served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is the managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at