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Israel’s future depends on a Haredi draft. Can it survive the process of implementing one?


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It is famously unwise to open up a second front while still engaged in the first. But a second front in Israel’s war is coming anyway, and it is domestic: the battle over military draft exemptions for Israel’s Haredim.

On Thursday, that battle became much more real. Israel’s High Court brought a policy that excuses almost all Haredi men from the compulsory draft, which dates to the country’s founding, close to its legal end. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is still seeking a legislative way to forestall the imminent drafting of the Haredim; without one, some might be drafted as early as Monday.

This is not some technical dispute or (just) a tedious sectarian kerfuffle. At stake is no less than Israel’s ability to fight a prolonged war, the survival of Netanyahu’s government, the country’s economic future and ultimately, its viability as a nation.

Unless something is done, Israel is headed toward a situation where a huge proportion of draft-age Jewish males will be excused from the military if, and for as long as they study in a yeshiva, meaning they also cannot work or study for gainful employment. Because of the fantastical Haredi birthrate of almost seven children per family, Haredim represent almost a quarter of Israeli 18-year-olds today. They make up about a sixth of the Israeli Jewish population and a quarter of Israeli first-graders, with their proportion in society doubling roughly every 20 years.

The draft exemptions began in the early years of the state, when they applied to only a few hundred genuine scholars. Some 45 years ago, prime minister Menachem Begin extended the exemptions to all yeshiva students until they are generally too old to serve, and with families too large to be drafted. The birthrate has turned this into a problem that can no longer be ignored. 

The exemptions were never formalized, but are an arrangement, and it has been challenged over the years at the Supreme Court. But we’ve never before been in territory like this.

It is not clear how to resolve the inherent contradictions: It will be hard and possibly morally wrong to try to draft Haredim by force, and there is no room in the jails for the masses who will defy such an effort. On the other hand, a blanket exemption in the context of a formal law is likely to be struck down by the Supreme Court on the basis of equality before the law. The situation appears to requires a Solomonic solution; Israel has Netanyahu.

The matter of Haredim and the draft is largely how Israel arrived at the government’s effort last year to enact sweeping changes to the judiciary including an “override clause,” allowing it to cancel court decisions by a simple majority. It is the reason why the Haredi parties were the most insistent on enacting such an egregious judicial loophole. The override clause, in addition to the other proposed changes, would have eviscerated Israel’s democracy — an effort that was halted by mass protests and then the Hamas massacre and Gaza war.

Indeed, the ongoing war is unhelpful to Netanyahu’s efforts to somehow still placate the Haredim. It has exposed the degree to which Israel relies on its reserve soldiers, and caused both conscription terms and time in the reserves to increase for those who do serve. The disruption to lives and the economy is huge and growing, and anger at the Haredim is ready to explode. 

The government has come up with a proposed bill that it hopes will somehow square the circle, slightly increasing the target number for Haredim to be drafted. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the most prominent figure with a backbone in Netanyahu’s Likud, has said he wouldn’t support it unless centrist parties also do, which they won’t. But even without Gallant, Netanyahu does have a fairly obedient Knesset majority of 63 out of 120.

Netanyahu will probably try to buy more time by prolonging the legislative process. He is the master of that sort of machination. But it looks as if by summer, matters will come to a head. If a law formally exempting most Haredim does pass, there will be mass protests and a wave of refusals to serve by secular people. If such a law does not pass, the Haredim have threatened to bolt from Netanyahu’s coalition, which would bring it down and spark new elections, which polls strongly suggest will remove him from office.

Will they make good on this threat? Possibly not, because their alternatives are few, and a future non-right government might very well finally take them on across the board. The Haredi parties billed themselves for a time as the balance of power between Israel’s right and the more moderate “center left” — a divide largely defined by attitudes toward the West Bank occupation, which the right wants to continue. But that was never true. At no point did the Haredim throw an election to the left; the right has never once won a majority without them.

Haredi hawkish-ness and support of right wing policies such as settlement expansion have fed secular anger, with accusations that Haredim are perpetuating a conflict with the Arabs in which they refuse to lend a hand. Leading Haredi rabbis have recently further pushed the envelope by claiming that Torah study is a greater contribution to security than being in the army. 

Mainly, the rabbis fear that if their youth were exposed to the secular world in the military, many would drop out of the Haredi way of life. And that’s a reasonable fear. Indeed, it is the not-so-secret hope of many secular Israelis that this precise thing might save their country. As the Haredi sector continues to grow, families depend on child allowances and stipends provided by the state to the yeshiva students, which the Netanyahu government has sharply increased. Secular Israelis, watching this in horror, ask how long they can keep propping up a ballooning welfare state-within-a-state. Israel seems to be heading off a cliff.

The draft issue is part of a far bigger kulturkampf that may be the sharpest on the planet.

There is an old joke in Israel that says that “one third of the country works, one third pays taxes, and one third serves in the military reserves — and it is the same one third.” That was always an exaggeration, but the Haredi birthrate is bringing such a reality closer every day. The Israelis who work, pay taxes and serve are verily itching for a fight. Not only because their outrage runneth over — but also because they fear that they are running out of time.

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