We’ve been talking a lot lately about the rising proportion of ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews in the Israeli population, and the various challenges it poses to Israeli society. Most dramatic are the declining proportion of 18-year-olds who will be available for military service, since the great majority of Haredi men claim an exemption as full-time yeshiva students, and the economic problems created by all those adult yeshiva students.
Well, there are some dramatic new developments in the past few days that haven’t gotten much play over here. The biggest news is the open revolt of a Haredi member of Knesset, Rabbi Haim Amsallem of Shas, who has caused a furor among Haredi leaders by calling openly for a sharp reduction in yeshiva deferments. He wants army deferments limited to outstanding students who are headed for the active rabbinate. Everyone else should go into the army and then go to work. He’s said it before in Haredi forums, but he caused an explosion November 5 when he laid out his views in a controversial Maariv interview, hinting that he’s thinking of quitting Shas and forming a new religious party that works for moderation and coexistence. Party leaders are demanding that he quit the Knesset and let Shas reassign his seat, but he says he won’t, even if he’s told to do so by the party’s spiritual patron, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.
Meanwhile, in a sign of the mounting concern in the army over the growing numbers of young men going to yeshiva instead of the army, the head of the Israel Defense Forces manpower division, Major General Avi Zamir, called a press briefing November 18 to report the latest numbers. As reported in Maariv, Zamir said that by 2020, just 10 years from now, fully 60% of Israelis (he’s apparently referring to men) will not go into the army or won’t finish their three-year compulsory service. Most of the increase is a result of the burgeoning Haredi population, he said.
And in a closely related story, Haaretz reported that the IDF Logistics Department has admitted it has frozen the number of one-year deferments granted to draftees to spend a pre-army gap year in certain traditional programs, mainly volunteer service in underprivileged neighborhoods, pre-army training academies and the Nahal fighting-and-farming corps that prepares units to join or form kibbutzim. The deferments are being cut back because of the army’s growing worries over troop strength, mainly because of yeshiva deferments.
The head of planning and logistics, Brig. Gen. Amir Rogovsky, told Haaretz that the IDF has frozen but not slashed the number of gap-year deferments and it will look for ways to increase the number next year. In fact, a number of friends have told me in the past few weeks that as far as they can tell there are no deferments at all being given out right now.
Yeshiva students who receive draft deferments include a huge number of able-bodied, married adults who stay out of the work force—and off the tax rolls—at least until age 40, at which time the army deferment becomes a permanent exemption. One result is massive poverty—half of all Haredi families live below the poverty line—and a ballooning budgetary cost of welfare payments to those families.
According to IDF manpower chief Zamir, the number of yeshiva-study deferments has risen 37% in the past five years alone, from 45,534 in 2005 to 62,567 in 2010. (Those are the numbers of deferments granted that year not just to first-year conscripts but to men who should be in their first, second or third year of compulsory service.)
Shas lawmaker Amsallem, in addition to urging a reduction in yeshiva deferments, is also calling for the Education Ministry’s core curriculum—math, English, history and civics—to be taught in Haredi schools, something the Haredi leadership has refused for years to accept. And he’s calling for eased conversion procedures, particularly for immigrants of partly-Jewish background who are serving in the army.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef took Amsallem on in his weekly Saturday night homily tonight (November 20), after weeks of silence. Without citing Amsallem by name, Yosef accused him of speaking “against the Torah.” The rabbi continued: “Whoever tells yeshiva boys to go to work is lacking faith in our Torah.” He didn’t tell Amsallem to quit the Knesset, though.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).