Although there has never been much sympathy for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community in any part of the country’s secular society, suddenly this has changed.
As the prospects improve for a Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett (or Likud-Yesh Atid-Habayit Hayehudi) coalition whose first project will making military service compulsory for the Haredi youth that has until now been exempt from it, indignant cries are being raised on the Israeli left.
Such a coalition, it is proclaimed, will constitute an unholy alliance; better pure religious extremists like the ultra-Orthodox than nationalistically religious ones like the settlers who dominate Habayit Hayehudi; Israel needs peace talks with the Palestinians, not more soldiers to prolong the occupation of Palestinian territory.
Where, asks the left, are the Labor Party and Shelly Yachimovich? Why don’t they consent to the coalition with Labor and the Haredim that Benjamin Netanyahu would like to form in order to keep Habayit Hayehudi out of his government?
Yet even if one grants that peace with the Palestinians is Israel’s most urgent task, this argument is misguided.
Of all Israel’s problems, three alone imperil its existence. These are the problem of the West Bank Palestinians, the problem of the country’s Arab citizens, and the problem of its Haredim. The first problem involves a population that Israel cannot absorb without destroying itself; the second and third, populations it must absorb to avoid destroying itself. Solving all three problems is critical, although in terms of the dangers they pose if not solved, that of the West Bank is the greatest, followed by that of Israeli Arabs. That of the Haredim comes third.
In terms of solvability, however, the order of the problems is unfortunately reversed.
The West Bank-Palestinian problem is the least soluble; right now, in fact, it can’t be solved at all, because the sides to the dispute are too far apart.
Next hardest is the Israeli Arab problem; the solutions for it exist but not the political will to carry them out.
Easiest is the problem of the Haredim. Here, too, the solutions are known – and as a result of January’s elections, the political constellation that can implement them does exist for the first time in Israel’s history.
It would be a serious mistake to pass up the opportunity to do so in the name of another, theoretically more important goal that at the moment can’t be attained.
What, after all, do secular and national-religious Israel want from the Haredi community, whose extremely high birthrate makes it a larger component of Israeli society from year to year? Not that it change its clothing, habits, or beliefs, but only that it agree, once and for all, to carry its fair share of the load – which means understanding, first and foremost, that it cannot go on letting the sons of other Israelis risk their lives to protect it while its own sons do nothing to protect anyone.
This has nothing to do with the study or observance of Torah, a body of sacred literature that does not espouse pacifism. It has everything to do with elementary morality and with the fact that, for decades, the Haredi community has behaved, and been allowed to behave, immorally.
Ninety percent of the animus against Haredim in Israeli society comes from this. Yes, there are other issues, too: low Haredi participation in the work force, large sums of public money used to support Haredi yeshivas and institutions, Haredi control of religious courts that rule on the lives of all Israelis, etc. None of these, however, forms the barrier between Haredim and non-Haredim that the issue of military service does.
Until this barrier is dismantled, the Haredim can never fully be a part of Israeli life. This is just fine with their rabbinical leadership, whose power comes from mediating between them and Israeli life, but it is something that Israel itself can no longer afford. It didn’t matter as much when the Haredim were 5% or 10 % of the Israeli population.
Now that they are nearing 20% and growing fast, Israel must either integrate them or collapse under their weight. Drafting them is the first and biggest step toward doing this.
Many, perhaps most, Haredim realize this, even if few will say so in public. Very few of them may want to serve in the army; but how many non-Haredim, if given the choice, would want to serve, either?
They are not given the choice, and neither should Haredim be. Let Israel’s new government have the courage to enact this principle in law, and other governments can go on to other things. By then, the situation may be ripe for them.
Hillel Halkin is an author and translator who has written widely on Israeli politics and culture and was the Forward’s Israel correspondent from 1993 to 1996.