Encouraging Haredi Participation in the IDF

A symbolic benefit would also be achieved: the ultra-Orthodox would wear uniforms like their non-haredi counterparts and experience a sense of having “joined” the larger society.

On the Knesset’s table sits a draft bill to significantly extend the military service for the demographic groups that actually serve in the IDF – in the standing army and in the reserves – without imposing any military burden at all on the groups that do not serve, primarily the ultra-Orthodox (haredim).

For a brief moment, there was hope of a nascent enlistment movement among haredi youth in light of the security emergency, but this was dashed. The haredim carry on as before: Every year, over 10,000 young men postpone their IDF service, and at the age of 26, the exemption age, they are allowed to leave the yeshiva and continue their lives without having served a single day of regular or reserve army duty.

The Israeli public is outraged. The JPPI Israeli Society Index examines public attitudes toward 14 different sectors of society. All social groups receive greater positive than negative sentiments (notably, for example, the Druze – 92% favorable vs 1% unfavorable), with the exception of two: Muslim Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Forty-four percent of Israeli Jews regard the haredim negatively. It is likely that in the next round of elections, anti-Haredi anger will loom large at the ballot box.

What can be done? On its face, the situation is discouraging. The Supreme Court has devoted unparalleled attention to this issue. Nine petitions were filed over the course of 50 years, heard by about half of all the Supreme Court justices through the generations.

The court has exercised the maximum power granted by the law, including the repeated nullification of (non-)conscription laws, without any results on the ground. The High Court of Justice will soon take up another petition that seeks to enforce Haredi military conscription, but it would be a mistake to assume that the ruling, even if the petition is granted, will lead to their actual service. The same tune plays again and again, more jarring than ever.

Therefore, some have raised their arms and proposed exempting haredim from military service at a younger age, like 21, in the hope that this will encourage them to join the labor market and the Israeli economy. The next generation, so the claim goes, whose parents work for a living outside the insularity of the “walls of holiness,” will join Israeli society and enlist. However, this proposal must be rejected; it normalizes injustice. Israel cannot afford such an extreme moral and social distortion.

Others suggest that all young Israelis, including haredim and Arabs, should be required to serve for three years. The IDF would select those who suit its needs, and the rest would serve in other tracks, such as social welfare, education, internal security, etc. But here’s the problem: It is clear that the IDF will encounter swift refusal from the haredim, and will therefore be forced to limit recruitment to other social groups. The inevitable outcome will be that the army will face widespread criticism for discrimination in its recruitment policy. It is unfair – even dangerous – to turn the army into the punching bag of those calling, and rightly so, for equality in shouldering the national burden.

Another approach – “recruitment now” – calls for forcing the haredim to enlist like the rest of the population. Those who refuse would be subject to the criminal sanctions provided by law. This is a populist, unrealistic, and risky idea. The application of criminal law against a large and determined identity group is not possible. Sending thousands of young ultra-Orthodox men to prison would tear Israel apart. The haredim would dig in their heels and declare an all-out war. The delegitimization and stigmatization of military service among the haredim would run deep for generations.

A middle way can be proposed: The State of Israel must stop underwriting a lifestyle that engenders inequality in how the national burden is met. It would mandate significant cuts in the unique allowances the haredi sector currently receives. This is not a punishment but a change in public policy regarding the allocation of state resources to the occupation known simply as “Torah Study.” The cessation of support, while ensuring minimal funding to preserve basic “human dignity,” if it is consistent and resolute, would activate internal market forces that can effectuate change.

Netzach Yehuda soldiers during sunrise, following an all night training session.  Photo by Hillel Maeir/TPS

It must be understood that the haredi reluctance to enlist mainly results from the fear that the younger generation would lose its ultra-Orthodox identity in the army. It would therefore be wise to allow the postponement of recruitment until the age of 21, when one’s identity is relatively solid.

Once they reach this age, they will be called up for military service that is compatible with the ethos of the community and also meets the security needs of the state. How? The haredim are leaders in endeavors of kindness related to public health and welfare – Hatzalah, Zaka, and Yad Sarah, for example – and they are proud of this. In this spirit, it could be suggested that the haredim be entrusted with the defense of the Israeli home front, which, in any reasonable future scenario of military conflict, will become the front line.

It can be assumed that the automatic haredi opposition to military service will abate if they are asked to serve as rescuers of the people of Israel and if this is done within an organizational framework where they are the key element – in a way that shields them from the other branches of the army.

In addition to the practical benefit of protecting our shared home, a symbolic benefit would also be achieved: the ultra-Orthodox would wear uniforms like their non-haredi counterparts and experience a sense of having “joined” the larger society. And above all, when the haredim are perceived as defenders of the population in all its diversity, the negativity they currently encounter will fade away. “Together we will win” will also include our ultra-Orthodox brothers.

Published by Jerusalem Post