If it weren’t so sad, the draft brouhaha in Israel would be the greatest show in town. It is a masquerade ball, a tragicomedy whereby each actor says the complete opposite of what he really wants.
The main actor, the IDF, is practically invisible. He doesn’t dare speak the truth, which is uncomfortable to many. The IDF really does not want the haredim in its ranks. As it is, the army has too much manpower. The last thing it needs is to deal with tens of thousands of new recruits with special dietary (and other) requirements – for which the army is unprepared. Both the Ben Basat Committee and the Shefer Committee have already studied the issue and recommended reducing conscription. But telling the truth to the feminists demanding to draft women into combat units and to the “pushovers” demanding a full-scale draft for the haredim would force the IDF top brass to exercise a rare character trait: acting courageously on public issues.
The second actor in our tragicomedy is the bearer of the torch of hatred for the haredim. This actor and his like-minded supporters were never great fans of army service. The last thing Yair Lapid wants is for the religious Zionist dominance in combat units to be matched by haredi dominance in the computer units of the Air Force and Navy. The outburst of patriotism that suddenly exploded onto the scene reflects political expedience and has nothing to do with ethics, or social or national values.
The third and fourth actors, the Kadima and Likud parties, are dragged into the show for similar reasons. The supporting cast: the media and the New Israel Fund and its plethora of organizations have kindled the cyclical bonfire of haredi hatred in the Israeli forest. Now they are all dancing around the flames. Who has time to deal with minor issues like Syria or Iran?
The only actors who truly want the haredim to enlist are the majority of haredi young men. They, like most people, are not capable of learning throughout the day and night. They would prefer to enter the workforce, but their establishment and Israel’s establishment do not allow them to do so. So in our theater of the absurd, the haredim wear the mask of those who do not want to enlist.
At the commencement ceremony recently held for the accounting graduates at the Kiryat Ono College, department head Yaron Zelicha addressed the many haredim who had successfully completed their degrees. He told them that they had not only scored better than the accounting graduates in other colleges, but that their grades were even higher than those of their secular counterparts.
The real challenge facing Israel is not integrating the haredim into the army, but rather integrating them into the workforce. Europe is not collapsing because of a lack of soldiers, but because in the face of increasing longevity, the productive sector of their society is shrinking.
Most of the nurseries and kindergartens being opened in Israel are for haredim. It is not the draft quotient in two decades that ought to concern us, but the integration into the workforce that should. If Israel continues to make it difficult for haredim who did not serve in the army to work, it is actually cutting off the branch on which it sits. Scientific investigation shows that a haredi child living in poverty today is the best investment for those aiming their arrows at him. That child will be feeding them when they are older.
The government can encourage the haredim to enter the workforce by taking the following steps:
1. Cut the connection between army service and integration into the workforce. When we prohibit Israeli citizens from working, what we are really doing is preventing them from paying taxes. The sanctions preventing the haredim from working are much more punishing to the state than to the citizen.
2. Copy and expand to other campuses the successful example of Yaron Zelicha at the Kiryat Ono College. The induction of haredim into academic learning and prodding them toward professions that Israel needs – particularly professions in which the haredim’s Talmudic backgrounds give them an advantage – is not only possible but also a sure way to success.