Middle East

Court Forces Israel to Face Its Ultra-Orthodox Problem

Ending the exemption from military service is only one step of many needed to better integrate this religious community.

The IDF wants you.

Photographer: David Silverman/Getty Images

When Israel’s Supreme Court ruled this week that a law exempting ultra-Orthodox young men from military service is unconstitutional, it did more than pose yet another political challenge for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who desperately needs the ultra-Orthodox parties to maintain his coalition. The court also reminded Israelis that the long-festering issue of how to integrate this religious community is more than a matter of public policy -- it cuts to the very question of what sort of country the Jewish State should be.

At the heart of Israel’s creation was a belief that, to survive in the modern world, its citizens needed to create a “new Jew.” Instead of the proverbial pale-faced student hunched over a sacred text in a dark and dank yeshiva, the Zionists said the new Jew would work the fields, bronzed and self-sufficient. The weak Jews would give way to the muscular Jews, newly able to defend themselves. Israel was meant to be the stage on which that reimagination of Jewishness would unfold.

The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, however, has long had a strategy for Jewish survival that was fundamentally at odds with almost all branches of Zionism. If Zionism was predicated on erasing the passivity of the Diaspora Jew and taking the reins of history into Jewish hands, the Haredi world believed that it was in the Diaspora that Jewish life had reached its purest state. If Zionists wanted to create a new Jew, Haredim sought to retain the luster of the old, “authentic” Jew and restore the primacy of Jewish religious life, even if that meant forcing it on nonbelieving Israelis. If Zionism believed that a powerful Jew could engage the non-Jewish world as an equal, the Haredi world eyed the Gentile world with suspicion and fear. They wanted to be left alone. The less contact with the Jewish state -- and the world with which it was engaging -- the better.

In Israel’s early years, David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister, decided to grant military exemptions to 400 yeshiva students, thinking that the Haredi community and its worldview were the last vestige of a Diaspora Judaism that would soon die out. Why risk a political battle with a community that would soon no longer exist? But Ben-Gurion had made a gross miscalculation. By 2010, the number of Haredim excused from military service through the same arrangement reached 62,500 -- an increase of 15,000 percent, in a period when Israel’s population had grown only 1,200 percent.

By 1963, Ben-Gurion realized that he had been wrong to release Haredi students from military obligation. He wrote to Levi Eshkol, then prime minister: “I released yeshiva students from army service. I did so when their number was small, but now they are increasing. When they run amok, they represent a danger to the honor of the state.”

Even Ben-Gurion, however, failed to recognize the full gravity of his folly. By 2014, Haredim constituted about 15 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, and growing. The average fertility rate for Haredi women was 6.2 children, while for the non-Haredi Jewish population it was 2.4. Because the vast majority of Haredi young men cease their secular education at age 14, they are much less prepared for the job market and remain increasingly dependent on the government. In 2010, the universally liked and admired Bank of Israel governor, Stanley Fischer, warned that without a significant change in policy, Israel’s prosperity in light of the Haredi numbers was simply “not sustainable.”

The issue of military service, on which the court ruled this week, is thus only part of a larger issue with which Israel must eventually grapple. The real issue is not whether ultra-Orthodox young men will serve in the military, but whether Israel’s economy can continue to sustain a growing portion of its population that is largely anti-modern, often effectively wards of the state and, perhaps most ominously, fundamentally at odds with the central vision that gave birth to the State of Israel.

The court gave the government a year to resolve the legal issue surrounding military conscription, so by Israeli standards, there is no urgency to the court’s ruling itself. And Prime Minister Netanyahu, the consummate political survivor, is likely to kick the can down the road for as long as possible.

At some point, however, Israelis are going to have to ask themselves how they are going to handle what is increasingly becoming a fifth column in Israeli life. Experience has shown that carrots are much more likely to work than sticks. Haredim respond better to financial and employment incentives than they do to threats of arrest for evading the draft. Alliances need to be built with the more open-minded Haredi leaders who wish to help their community escape the poverty in which it has long lived. What Israel needs now is a social engineer with a long-term vision and the credibility in both communities who might help Israel avoid a potentially disastrous internal conflict.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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