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The Ultra-Orthodox Draft: Crossing the Third Rubicon

The Special Committee for the Equal Sharing of the Burden Bill, a parliamentary committee headed by MK Ayelet Shaked, is currently preparing the government’s proposed legislation on the issue of Haredi military service for its second and third readings. This is the last, decisive stage in a historical process of repairing the relationship between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the State of Israel. In order to successfully defuse this landmine, avoid a culture war, and reach widespread military service that will lead to social integration, we must first define the proper role of the State. And we must do so with sensitivity.

A young ultra-Orthodox man who wishes to become integrated in Israeli society must cross three raging rivers: an existential Rubicon, an identity Rubicon, and a practical Rubicon. Existentially, he must to choose to leave the yeshiva, his true home, and come to terms with a lifestyle that he perceives as less than ideal. Once he has made this choice, Torah study is no longer the center of his existence; a gap has been formed between the ideal and the real in his life.

In the realm of identity, the young man must deal with the challenge of integrating into the secular world, rich and rewarding as it may be, while maintaining a distinct and ascetic Haredi lifestyle. He must grapple with the tension of preserving the warmth of the Torah—the core of ultra-Orthodox identity—in the frigid air of the secular world.

Beyond confronting existential challenges and questions of identity, which are internal and emotional issues, the young ultra-Orthodox man who has ventured outside the walls of the ghetto must also cross a third Rubicon of practicality. He must serve in the army, learn a trade, and find employment outside his cloistered community. This can be a difficult path for people in their twenties who lack adequate preparation.

The government bill to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews, which passed its first reading in the Knesset, makes the mistake of forcing the ultra-Orthodox to cross the first two Rubicons. It sets quotas limiting the number of Torah scholars who will be exempt from military service and threatens to arrest Haredi men who do not enlist. Although the proponents of this legislation do not wish to convert the ultra-Orthodox and strip them of their identity, the ultra-Orthodox see this as the ultimate result of the bill. This explains why the Haredi community is expected to rise up against the law. It is not possible to integrate 750,000 pious Jews into Israeli society “with whips and scorpions.” The Haredi struggle with identity is a personal, internal matter, as it is for every other sector of Israeli society.

Instead, the government should focus its efforts on bridging the third Rubicon, the river of practicality. It must open gates and remove obstacles in order to enable ultra-Orthodox Jews who choose the path of integration of their own free will to move toward that goal. The outlook appears promising: the number of ultra-Orthodox men serving in the IDF and civil service has increased eightfold in the last six years, Haredi employment rose ten percent in the last decade, and there are currently over 6,000 ultra-Orthodox students in Israeli institutions of higher education. It is essential to ensure that these courageous pioneers find jobs that are suited to their talents, and do not encounter a glass ceiling erected by stereotypes. Once these trailblazers succeed, we can expect a large influx of ultra-Orthodox workers that will change the face of the Israeli economy.

The State has an additional role—a critical function that constitutes the principal task of the Shaked committee. Experts estimate that about two-thirds of the Haredi men who have deferred their military service and remained in yeshiva are interested in joining the labor force. They want to make a living, just like you and me, while still maintaining the values and lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox community. They have not acted on these personal preferences, however, because of internal “market failures”— political, social and institutional barriers—within the ultra-Orthodox community. The proposed conscription law can play an important role in removing these obstacles. How so?

The government must adopt a responsible public policy for the allocation of state resources to those who study Torah. The State of Israel currently allocates a billion shekel per year to support Torah study—a considerable sum, without which the Torah world could not exist. If these funds are used as positive and negative incentives, the spiritual and political leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community will realize that their decisions will determine whether the “community of scholars” enjoys a dignified existence. If the internal obstacles that make it difficult for the majority of ultra-Orthodox men to act on their preferences and enter the working world are removed, the world of Torah study will flourish. The “community of scholars” will admitedly be smaller, but it will be comprised of genuine, high quality Torah scholars, and will be worthy of its name. Once the barriers are gone, army service will increase and integration will advance naturally, with no need for coercion or penalties.

Ultimately, the ultra-Orthodox must serve in the military—not in national civil service—at rates that are similar to those of the rest of Israel’s population. This is the only way to meet the legal, moral, and even religious imperatives of sharing the burden of sovereign existence. Only after military service will they be able to integrate into the Israeli economy and society while preserving their unique identity. Antagonistic legislation adopted in a hostile public environment will cause a tragic reversal of the existing trend of integration. It will produce draft evasion and generate further withdrawal from society. An ill-considered attempt to coerce will shut down an engine of future economic growth and widen the rift in Israeli society.

Inclusive language is needed that acknowledges the ultra-Orthodox individual’s autonomy in crossing the first two Rubicons. Economic arrangements must be made in order to break down the barriers that are preventing those individuals from exercising their autonomy. The state, the private sector, and the third sector must all focus efforts on integrating the ultra-Orthodox in the educational system and the labor force. Let’s not cause harm to Israel’s social solidarity and economic vitality by passing a popular but ill-advised reform. 


Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University. Attorney Haim Zicherman is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

This article is adapted from an op-ed that was published in Hebrew in Haaretz on August 16, 2013