Israeli Right Split Over Whether Ultra-Religious Jews Need to Serve in the Army

(Bloomberg) -- Yossi Levi diverged from his traditional ultra-Orthodox Jewish upbringing when he chose to serve in Israel’s military, against the wishes of his family who worried the experience would make him less religious.

That makes Levi a rarity among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox -- known as haredim in Hebrew -- who wear distinctive old-fashioned dress, have large families, often live in separated neighborhoods and receive only the barest secular education.

Israel’s policy allowing haredi men to pursue government-subsidized religious studies instead of army service is facing new scrutiny as the country gears up for its second general election in the space of a few months. Disagreement over a bill that would force ultra-Orthodox men to join the army, as most Israelis do, upended Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a coalition government. The issue is likely to remain divisive as campaigning resumes.

Israeli Right Split Over Whether Ultra-Religious Jews Need to Serve in the Army

Haredim say serving in the military, alongside non-religious and female soldiers, threatens their traditional way of life. Some ultra-Orthodox soldiers have been ostracized or physically attacked on their return from the army.

Because they don’t enlist and can focus on religious studies, many haredi men don’t enter the workforce, consigning their families to a life of poverty. It also rankles more liberal Israelis, who say it’s time they gave back to the broader community.

Today, Levi is chief executive officer of Netzah Yehuda, a non-profit that helps haredim in the army. Almost all the graduates of his program go on to find jobs, he said.

“The army opens many many doors,” Levi said. “Our veterans, they go into Israeli society.”

Rapid Growth

The ultra-Orthodox community is growing quickly, expected to make up about one-third of the population by 2065, up from about 11% in 2015, the Central Bureau of Statistics forecast. The employment rate for haredi men is around 50%, compared to about 80% for the general Israeli population.

As far back as 2010, then-Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer warned the situation was not economically sustainable.

Gilad Malach, director of an Israel Democracy Institute program on the ultra-Orthodox, said Haredi men who serve in the army go on to work at rates comparable to the general population. He estimates that drafting haredim could help boost Israel’s economy by $10 billion a year.

Israeli Right Split Over Whether Ultra-Religious Jews Need to Serve in the Army

“Because of their growth, integrating them into the labor market becomes more and more important,” said Malach.

Levi said his organization’s dream is to build “a community of haredi guys who serve in the army, who want to live in a good area with a haredi culture -- but they want to work, they want to have a degree.”

Founding Fathers

Haredi military exemptions began around the state’s founding. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, granted exemptions to what at the time were just a few hundred religious students. The number of annual exemptions and deferrals had reached more than 30,000 by 2017, compared to about 3,000 haredim who enlist each year, according to a report prepared by the Israel’s parliamentary research center.

A short-lived law to restore greater parity foundered after Netanyahu brought haredim back into the government in 2015. The high court gave the Knesset until next month to resolve the issue, or all ultra-orthodox men will be subject to the draft. The Knesset dissolved last week in the political turmoil around the draft bill, and won’t convene again until after September elections.

A standoff over a haredi draft bill backed by former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was the ostensible reason Netanyahu couldn’t form a coalition last week, precipitating new elections. The bill would set annual enlistment goals, with funding reduced to religious schools, known as yeshivas, that don’t meet their quota.

Members of the haredi community are adamant that religious students can’t be expected to serve, setting Israel up for some difficult debates as elections loom.

“Everybody knows that no Orthodox yeshiva student is going to the army,” said Yitzhak Pindros, a legislator from the United Torah Judaism bloc. “Now the question is how to write it in the books of the law.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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