Here’s some good news from the domestic Israeli front: the first group of 70 Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students recently began serving in the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence unit, and both army and students pronounce the experiment a success. They join the approximately 250 who have served as air-force mechanics and technicians since 2007 — of whom a whopping 60 percent applied for officer training — and some 2,500 who have served in the Haredi combat unit Nahal Haredi, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last week.
Clearly, they are a drop in the bucket compared with the 5,000 yeshiva students who obtain draft deferments every year (though since this includes religious Zionist men who spend a year in yeshiva before enlisting, the number of actual draft dodgers is smaller). Moreover, their service entails a huge investment by the army: the MI recruits, for instance, receive stipends to support their families (all are married men who enlisted after years in yeshiva), special food that meets Haredi kashrut standards, their own work space (so they don’t have to share offices with female soldiers), etc.
Nevertheless, like the Haredi colleges that have opened in recent years and now enroll thousands of Haredi men and women, they are a sign that the Haredi world’s monolithic isolation has begun to crack. And that is vital for Israeli society’s long-term health.
This is due, in part, to sheer numbers: the Haredi birthrate is the highest in Israel, and recent demographic forecasts say that if current trends continue, Haredim will constitute more than one-fifth of Israel’s Jewish population by 2028 and 37 percent by 2050, up from about 4 percent in the 1980s and 10 percent today. That is far too large a percentage for any country to support if most Haredi men continue to be full-time yeshiva students dependent on government handouts. And in a country whose very existence still depends on a strong army, it is also an insupportable percentage of draft dodgers.
But Israel also needs the positive contribution Haredim can make. A society struggling with a worrying disconnect from its Jewish cultural roots, a deteriorating school system, and growing economic inequality would benefit from a dose of Haredi devotion to Jewish tradition, education, and charity. Yet only by interacting with other Israelis and sharing their burdens — army service and earning a living — can Haredim exert a positive influence. If they remain behind their walls and refuse to participate in mainstream Israeli life, their impact will be nil.
Clearly, some Haredim should remain in yeshiva: a Jewish state ought to support top-quality Torah-learning, just as it supports science and humanities scholarship. But not everyone can be a top-flight Torah scholar, and Israel needs Haredi skills in other areas, too.
It’s still an open question whether the change in Haredi society will occur quickly enough to outrun the demographic time bomb. But it now looks more likely than it did a few years ago, thanks to IDF officers whose vision and investment of resources is opening the army to the Haredi world.