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Israel needs to follow through on drafting the Haredim — for the sake of its economy, not just its military

Israel’s Supreme Court unilaterally decided the government must draft Haredi Jews. The country’s future depends on that decision’s implementation

An old joke says that Israel is a country where one-third of the population goes to the army, one-third works, and one-third pays taxes. The problem is, the joke goes, it’s the same third. 

After Oct. 7, to many, that joke became less funny. That’s because, in the midst of the longest war in Israel’s history, the country is also contending with profound internal conflict over the role that the Haredi Jewish population can and should play in Israeli society.

Today, after weeks of uncertainty, Israel’s Supreme Court of Justice unilaterally decided that the government must conscript Haredi Jews into the Israel Defense Forces. The court’s decision comes after the government refused to take such a step in March, when the law granting exemptions expired — and seven years after the court ruled that a law that allowed yeshiva students to defer military service until they reached the age of exemption was unconstitutional, and violated equality rights.

This earthquake couldn’t come at a more sensitive time.

On the one hand, given the war in Gaza and escalating conflict with Hezbollah, the IDF has been claiming it needs thousands more soldiers to stay afloat, which practically means no more exemptions can be granted to some Israelis. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s coalition, which depends on two Haredi parties, can only survive if his government continues to refuse to draft people from these populations while subsidizing their institutions — practices that have been the norm since, effectively, the creation of the state. 

But Israel is at a crossroads, and this situation has become unsustainable. The need for a widespread conscription of all sectors of Israeli society is more pronounced today than ever — not only from a defense perspective, as the generals say, but from an economic one.

There is an important gap in participation in the labor force when it comes to the Haredim, particularly men, as compared with the average Israeli. About 55% of male Haredim participate in the workforce as of recent 2024 data, compared to nearly 75% of the population as a whole. 

There are many reasons why this is the case, including the fact that many in this population devote most of their time to studying Torah, often enabled to do so through economic support from their state-funded institutions. Interestingly, historically, the labor force participation of Haredi women is higher, suggesting that a typical arrangement for many families in this sector is that the man studies, and the woman works.

Incentivizing the participation of more Haredi men in the labor force should be an urgent economic goal for Israel. Over the past decade, we’ve seen many internal conflicts in all parts of the world — developed and developing countries alike — fueled by citizens demanding more equality of income and of opportunity. The frustration of many non-Orthodox Israelis at their tax dollars funding a Haredi lifestyle that contributes to neither the nation’s economic nor military needs has been palpably growing. 

The result of that economic angst — combined with expanding social unrest in Israel, particularly amid increasing protests against the government — is nothing less than a pressure cooker that could explode at any minute. 

Insisting the Haredim join the melting pot that is the IDF is one of the best incentives the state is able to deploy — despite broad Haredi resistance to the policy. Military service creates a significant opportunity for forging social cohesion between the Haredim and their non-Orthodox peers, and helps young people gain skills needed for the labor force. (Most soldiers in the IDF are not in combat units but rather in support roles, working in offices and doing administrative work.)

As such, ending the long-standing and already unsustainable exemptions that keeps this population from being drafted is part of the solution to ensure higher labor participation across all sectors of society.

Israel faced a wave of social justice protests in 2011 due to the rising cost of living. A renewed round of this type of protest could arise from the very real perception, in Israel, that there is an unequal participation in societal duties that heavily favors the Haredim. And while the disruptions of 2011 may have faded away, it’s easy to anticipate that this time they will be more unforgiving, as politicians on the left and the right both want to capitalize on unrest — as they’ve done in many parts of the world. While some of these political figures, one could argue, are already in power in Israel, things can always get worse.

Thus, for Israel, this represents another “Altalena” moment.

By this I’m referring to the decision by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, in 1948, to attack a ship carrying arms for the Irgun movement, killing 16 of its members. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, who himself later became prime minister of Israel, was one of several paramilitary Jewish organizations before the creation of the state devoted to opposing the British mandate in then Palestine. 

For Ben-Gurion, as some saw it, it was a matter of life or death to send a strong message to everyone within Israel that once the state of Israel was founded in 1948 there could be only one army, which was the already-established IDF, setting the tone for institutional discipline in the country.

The comparable truth in Israel today is that for the country to survive there can be only one society, with one set of military and economic expectations of its citizens — not different tiers of society for those who practice different levels of observance. Even if today’s Haredim will feel betrayed by a system that has unfairly protected them for decades, they must have always known, to some extent, that it wouldn’t last forever. 

Their participation in the national project that is Israel, with all of the rights and duties that entails, can’t be delayed any longer. In the medium and long run, we all — including those same men and women who will soon be conscripted — will only benefit from that.

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