Religion and State

New proposed draft exemption framework for haredim endangers Israel 

Israel’s politicians once again prefer to acquiesce to the haredim, this time with support from the IDF and the Finance Ministry, which wants rapid growth.

The newly proposed draft exemption framework for the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) spells disaster for the State of Israel. At its core is monetary compensation for IDF soldiers in exchange for what amounts to a global exemption of the haredim from military service.

In the short term, it constitutes an official disavowal of the aspiration to equality and of the “people’s army” model. In the long term it may lead to military decline and economic collapse.

As an exercise in risk management, Israel’s politicians once again prefer to acquiesce to the haredim, this time with support from the IDF and the Finance Ministry, which wants rapid growth. The politicians have preferred this to fighting for the ideal of equality so that the Zionist project can survive.

In two months, the current draft arrangement will expire, and the government will have to present an alternative. Given the power the haredim wield in the governing coalition, that alternative will most certainly not entail a more equal sharing of the burden. Resolution of this issue would also ease haredi demands for judicial reform, another bonus for the government

Thus, the IDF and the defense minister are promoting a “revolutionary” arrangement. In general terms the arrangement offers a “you serve-you get” formula. The higher the “quality” of one’s military service – combat or high-tech/intelligence duties – the longer one’s service will be and the more generous the compensation.

If you’re a clerk at the Kirya army base, your service will be short and you’ll get a standard military salary. If you’re a fighter in the Caracal Battalion, you’ll serve for a longer period and be showered with financial benefits. A minimum wage for service, study and apartment-purchase benefits, and more.

All this wonderfulness is, in essence, hush money. In “exchange” for it, the IDF and the Defense Ministry are willing to advocate lowering the haredi exemption age, such that the haredim will effectively be exempt from military service altogether.

Haredim demonstration. Photo: Kobi Gidron

The non-haredim will serve, while their sense of injustice and of unequal treatment will be numbed by government money. This is a perfect tradeoff for this government. IDF and Defense Ministry support for the proposed framework will soften public opposition and make it possible to close a “historic deal” with the haredim.

Among the proposal’s supporters are those who cannot be suspected of disregarding equality. They admit the deal stinks but take a realpolitik approach: past attempts to draft the haredim have failed, so it’s better to pursue the “real” than the “ideal.”

The significant benefit to Israel, they reassure themselves and us, is that the haredim will join the labor market. According to them, if the haredim are exempted from military service, they’ll abandon their yeshivot and enter the workforce – and Israel’s GDP will skyrocket.

But this is incorrect on all counts. It’s a bad deal in terms of values, but also from a cost-benefit perspective, as it is based on faulty assumptions.

The first casualty of the deal, should it be implemented, is the “people’s army” model, which was built at a time when the entire country was a battlefront, and which is still essential for the country’s survival. The model has indeed eroded over the years. In the 1990s, the conscription rate among those for whom the draft was mandatory was 75%, but by 2022 it had dropped to 69% for males.

Part of the decline is explained by a significant increase in the share of haredim among conscription candidates, but another portion is due to a decrease in motivation to enlist. The erosion of the people’s army model also manifests in public attitudes.

A 2021 Israel Democracy Institute survey found that 47% of Israeli Jews believe that compulsory conscription should be abolished and that the IDF should be professionalized; 42% oppose such a move. Not surprisingly, haredi support for this far-fetched idea reaches 80%.

Rather than fighting this trend, the new proposed deal will significantly exacerbate it. While today there is a demand, at least in principle, for equality in burden sharing, the deal will extinguish that too, for a handful of shekels. Imagine a Gen-Z teenager who gets his tzav rishon (“first notice”) from the army. He lives in a materialistic society and his life revolves around social media figures and images that have nothing whatsoever to do with the State of Israel, its values and its troubles.

On the news channels he sees how haredim go about their business without any commitment to serve and put themselves at risk. If he’s from an affluent background, what incentive does he have to show up at the IDF induction center? And who exactly will show up? Those for whom the financial benefits beckon.

The IDF will go from being the “people’s army” to the “poor people’s army.” The ability to attract the best of our youth to the army’s essential combat and technological units will simply not exist. The worse the problem gets, the more the state will have to pay in order to maintain an army that will come more and more to resemble a professional military – something that almost no serious expert thinks is possible in the Israeli reality.

Ultra-orthodox young men at the Bakum Tel haShomer army base. Photo: TPS

Haredi labor market participation will not be able to finance this budgetary burden. The employment gap primarily affects haredi men, who in yeshiva, study only Torah. Even those among them who choose to enter the workforce find it difficult to secure quality employment. In fact, because of the money they receive from the state to sit and learn in yeshiva, their incentive to go to work is so low that they often find it just not worth it to do so.

In 20 years, the haredim will constitute about 27% of the Israeli citizenry. As the haredi population grows and the army-serving population shrinks, it will become harder to recruit soldiers, and those who do serve will cost more money. But the haredim, barring some drastic change to their way of life, will continue to pay very little in taxes and receive allowances and benefits at high rates. In this reality, who will fund the security burden, which will be significantly greater than it is today?

The proposed change is a huge gamble on the country’s security. It is also an irreversible step. Once the people’s army model is buried, it will be very hard to raise it from the grave. At the same time, it is not at all clear whether it will be possible to recruit soldiers under a service model that essentially buys their loss of life in combat, with money.

Indeed, the question of equality in burden sharing is complicated, and there is no simple solution in sight. But buying political time and a solution of present convenience could exact an unbearably heavy economic and security price farther down the road.

The only way to continue to sustain the State of Israel is to insist on meaningful service, military or national, for everyone; on core studies and employment training for the haredim; on equal sharing of the economic burden; on our existence here, but also on our values, including the value of equality.

First published by The Jerusalem Post.