Religion and State

Drafting Haredim Is Now an Existential Issue

Before October 7, we thought the IDF could be a ‘small and smart army,’ but reality has cruelly slapped us in the face.

The Haredi draft law the government is currently promoting is another “Israbluff.” The number of ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) that will be recruited is negligible, if any. It is intended for two purposes: restoring full funding to the yeshiva system, the transfer of which depends on the draft law; and buying more time for the ultra-Orthodox until they achieve absolute political control and completely entrench exemption from conscription. Enactment of the proposed arrangement heralds disaster for the State of Israel in the long term, and the end of the “people’s army” in the short term. This was true before October 7, and is even more so after.

A fitting Haredi draft law must be based on one simple principle: everyone enlists. Enactment of such a law will only be possible if the composition of the government changes, or when a Zionist bloc is formed after the elections that would be willing to “sacrifice itself ” to correct this historical injustice and save Israel.

Before October 7, we thought that the IDF could be a “small and smart army,” but reality has cruelly slapped us in the face. It is forcing the State of Israel and the IDF to significantly change the concept of force-building. Before October 7, the Israeli defense concept (conceptzia in Hebrew) was based on complete reliance on early-warning intelligence and staging a limited defensive force at the borders to thwart focal attacks. This conceptzia went up in the smoke of Be’eri and Kfar Aza; it was washed away in the blood of the Nova music festival.

Obviously, intelligence will continue to be collected, but we cannot rely on it blindly. After the weakest among our enemies managed to surprise us, the reference scenario of a significant surprise attack will require the IDF to maintain a much larger order of battle. This is, of course, after we finish the current war, the end of which is not yet in sight.

The IDF has an immediate need for 7,000 additional troops. And this is in addition to the reservists, whose length of service has already been extended to terms unprecedented in Israeli history. This is a zero-sum game: if the Haredim do not serve in the IDF, the mandatory service of those who do will be longer and longer, and the reservists will return to almost permanent service, until they collapse under the burden.

The only group that does not share the conscription burden is the Haredim. Even after 22 years of legislation that for the most part was a dressed-up lie, the conscription rate among Haredim remains minimal. Data presented by the army, points to enlistment of at most eight percent of potential Haredi recruits. Many of these are Haredi only in the formal sense, but left the Haredi world long ago. While it was possible in Israel’s first decades, ethical implications aside, to waive Haredi IDF service, the drastic shift in the needs of the military, together with the increase in the population share of the ultra-Orthodox in Jewish-Israeli society, completely change the equation.

Today, the Haredim number about 1.36 million people, and 60% of them are under the age of 20. By 2030, one in four young Israelis will be Haredi and they will constitute about a third Israel’s total Jewish population. Already today, there are 12,000 Haredi youth in the conscription cohort, about 10% of the total cohort. This number will increase rapidly and the proportion of Haredim among all candidates for conscription will be so significant that it may not be possible to maintain the army without them.

This situation is unsustainable — numerically and also beyond that. To maintain the “people’s army” model, which is generally agreed to be the only way, everyone must be drafted. As long as this is not the case, the willingness to serve among today’s recruits and reservists will likely decrease. Surveys, and anecdotal evidence, including what young Israelis are saying on social media, show that this is the trend.

The heart of every Israeli who values Israeli society and its unity should be inclined to work cooperatively with the Haredim to reach agreements that will circumvent difficult confrontations and the use of sanctions. I wish this were possible. But a sober look at the history of attempts to enlist the Haredim and the recalcitrance of Haredi leaders as well as the Haredi public, illustrates the romantic futility of this approach. Since the enactment of the Tal Law in 2002, and for the 22 years that have followed, the Haredim have routinely resorted to deception and delay tactics. In all these years, they have never shown a genuine willingness to share the burden. Any Haredi agreement to conscription has been merely a pretext designed to buy time.

October 7, the worst security crisis in the country’s history, raised hopes that something might change among the Haredim. But the earthquake that shook everyone in Israel almost eight months ago did not change the Haredi stance, even a little bit.

Rabbis and political leaders have repeated the mantra that they will not agree to the conscription of a single Haredi man. Many of them have even hardened their positions, stating that even Haredim who are not studying Torah will not be drafted. The phrase “Torah study is their occupation” has morphed into “being Haredi is their profession.” Are you Haredi? You don’t have to enlist.

These trends are also glaringly apparent within Haredi society itself. Only a small number, between 10% and 20% of Haredim, believe that the ultra-Orthodox should be subject to conscription. The rate of those willing to actually enlist is minimal. In other words, the chance of recruiting Haredim through dialogue and agreement, and not just another round of winks and nods, is nil.

The meaning of all this is clear. Any draft law this government enacts will be designed to allow the Haredim to benefit from the state budget without enlisting. Every Israeli who desires the continued existence of the state must oppose it. Knesset members who vote in favor are selling out our future, our children’s future. They are placing the blood of those who serve and sacrifice on the altar of political survival.

In order to bring about real Haredi recruitment, a draft law under a future government, or one that will be passed by the current government without the support of the Haredim, must be based on the following principles:

Photo: Gideon Markovitch, TPS

All Haredim will enlist except for a small quota of exemptions for “Torah elites”; the conscription requirement is personal, not communal, meaning that everyone enlists without the use of “targets” and “quotas,” as all the conscription laws have done so far; a Haredi man who does not enlist will be classified as a deserter – he will not be imprisoned, but will carry the criminal stigma, with all that implies, until he completes his service; deferral of service for the sake of Torah study will not be longer than three years; conscription of Haredim will be for the entire IDF (within adapted frameworks); state support for the Haredi way of life for those who do not serve will cease: institutions where those who have not served study will be ineligible for state funding; funding for Torah students who have served will also be limited, to incentivize joining the labor market after military service; those who have not served will not receive state benefits beyond basic social support (child allowances); those who serve in the military will receive preference in all state resources – real estate tenders, employment in the civil service, etc.

The Haredi have a legitimate concern that IDF service will come at the cost of their identity. In order to enable them to serve in a way that aligns, as much as possible under military circumstances, with the Haredi way of life, the army must build tailored frameworks for ultra-Orthodox inductees. One possible solution is the establishment of a Border Guard corps, in which the Haredim will serve on separate bases in a way that “safeguards” their identity.

Equality in shouldering the national burden is important, but a sufficient IDF supply chain is an existential matter. The army’s ranks cannot be filled with foreign workers from the Far East. The only way to increase the number of recruits immediately, and to maintain their level in the long term, is to conscript the Haredim like everyone else. This is no longer just an ethical appeal for equality. It is a matter of survival.

Published by TOI