Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Charedim and the State > Lowering Army Exemption Age: A Sowellian Move

Lowering Army Exemption Age: A Sowellian Move

Lowering the exemption age manifests the age-old adage, "Don't be right, be smart." It will not deepen the conflict between groups in Israel; on the contrary, it will lower the flames. Non-Charedi society will continue to feel frustration over Charedi non-participation, but at least it won't have to subsidize it.

Iyyar 5783 / April 2023

And here we are again. Once more, the issue of Charedi recruitment to the IDF, among the thorniest and most complex issues that continually arise in Israel’s public sphere, is up for discussion. All sides occupy their familiar corners. The general public does not doubt the righteousness of its position, while Charedim remain firmly entrenched in theirs. Not many issues have the potency to bring Charedi society, en masse, to the streets of Israel in demonstration. The draft issue might be the only one.

From the Charedi perspective – to generalize, of course – the IDF is Ben Gurion’s melting pot for creating the “new Jew” – a Jew divorced from his father’s tradition and his mother’s Torah. Participating in the IDF involves a clear and present danger of leaving halachic tradition and, at the very least, abandoning the Charedi value of maintaining a significant distance from the State of Israel and its secular culture.

How can they enjoy the defense provided by Israel’s military while refusing to share its burden? How can they claim the mantle of moral superiority even as they evade the most basic moral responsibility that life in Israel demands?

On the other side of the equation is the non-Charedi perspective, which sees Charedim as immoral and unscrupulous draft dodgers. How can they enjoy the defense provided by Israel’s military while refusing to share its burden? How can they claim the mantle of moral superiority even as they evade the most basic moral responsibility that life in Israel demands? From this perspective, the refusal of Charedi society to serve is both baffling and infuriating.

It seems that with every passing year, as the numbers of Charedi society continue to burgeon, the tension only intensifies. Clearly, something has to happen; something needs to give. But equally clearly, nothing can happen. It is a social battle in which no side can capitulate.

The current Israeli administration, comprised of parties generally sympathetic to the Charedi cause, has proposed several articles of legislation in connection with the draft issue. Among a range of suggestions, the most significant and realistic item seems to be lowering the exemption age for Yeshiva students – from 26 down to 23 or even to 21. This will mean that a Charedi individual, whose annual deferral of army service currently depends on being enrolled in a Yeshiva institution, will be released of this burden at the age of 21. He will be free to work, study in academia, or do as he pleases without the menace of enforced conscription hanging over his head.

Some, including Eliyahu Levy in a recent Tzarich Iyun [Hebrew] article, have sharply criticized this proposal. Levy claims that the move will only deepen the inequality of Israeli society, accentuate the moral conundrum, and further incite non-Charedi Israel. According to Levi, combining the freedom to integrate into Israel’s economy and begin a professional life with Charedi refusal to serve in the IDF will only make things worse. I disagree with this position and wish to argue that lowering the exemption age – as recommended years ago by Israel’s finance ministry – is a good idea.

Before I get to the body of the argument, I will briefly expand on the economic challenge facing the State of Israel. One of the direct derivatives of the recruitment problem is the non-integration of Charedim into the general labor market. The issue is becoming increasingly burdensome as Charedi society proliferates, and we would be deeply mistaken to ignore it.


Army Service and the Economic Challenge

One of the primary obstacles facing a Charedi man who wants to earn a living is enforced conscription. The arrangement initiated by Ben Gurion ties the two together: deferrals from army service are granted to Yeshiva students alone; as soon as he leaves the study hall, a (former) Yeshiva student must make his way directly to the army base. Thus, a Charedi individual who does not wish to enlist – for better or worse, this includes almost all Charedi young men – cannot work (legally) even if he wants to.

Charedim who want to earn a living will do everything to avoid conscription, often remaining on the Yeshiva (or Kollel) registration while working off the books, only to avoid the draft and risking their spiritual identity and social standing

Back in the day, there was reason to believe this policy would incentivize Charedi recruitment. Any Charedi person who wishes to go out to work – and indeed, there ought to be many – is automatically forced to enlist. In practice, however, decades of experience show that the result is the very opposite. After a few years of growth, the rate of Charedi enlistment over the last five years continually declines, while the rate of participation in the job market has remained stagnant. Charedim who want to earn a living will do everything to avoid conscription, often remaining on the Yeshiva (or Kollel) registration while working off the books, only to avoid the draft and risking their spiritual identity and social standing. In a sense, Israel’s “Haredi problem” was caused, albeit unintentionally, by binding together the issues of work and conscription: not only do Charedim not serve, they also don’t work.‎ Secular society must carry both burdens alone. The sociological habits created by this situation weigh even heavier on Israel’s labor market, and no solution seems to be in sight.

This reality has been troubling economists from all sides of the political spectrum for years. Indeed, more and more voices are calling for breaking the dependence between the two issues: army and labor. The current government’s new recruitment outline seeks to finally address the problem, at least partially, by lowering the exemption age.

Enter the naysayers – Levy and his colleagues – with a significant claim: lowering the exemption age will only amplify the inequality between Charedi and non-Charedi Jews in Israel. The move will essentially create two classes, the “serving class” and the “evading class,” while the “evaders” won’t pay any price for it. Is this the good and the just that we want? Is this what the Torah expects from us?

Don’t be Right, Be Smart

The ethical claim noted above is, indeed, a justified one. There is much truth in its simple morality. However, in a complex reality, justice may be the enemy of wisdom. Pragmatism, I readily concede, is not everything. But it remains a significant something.

In his book “A Conflict of Vision,” economist Thomas Sowell formulated the dichotomous division of public thinking. On the right side of the map stand those who espouse the “constrained” vision of observing reality, respecting it, and understanding that despite all its shortcomings, it is probably the best option. Indeed, it is the only one possible. In contrast, on the other side of the political fence are those espousing the “unconstrained” vision, who seek to change the existing order and impose justice open the world – hence, “justice warriors” – without bowing to political or sociological restrictions.‎

To borrow Soel’s semantic field, the claim against lowering the age of exemption draws from an unconstrained view of our reality. It is a claim that begs for justice and aspires to a magical solution that will finally bring the Charedi issue to a fair conclusion

To borrow Soel’s semantic field, the claim against lowering the age of exemption draws from an unconstrained view of our reality. It is a claim that begs for justice and aspires to a magical solution that will finally bring the Charedi issue to a fair conclusion. Yet, the enemy of justice is often simple reality, and a consideration of reality, as experienced over the last 70 years, teaches us some basic lessons:

  • The great majority of Charedi society does not enlist in the IDF and will not enlist irrespective of sanctions and their severity.
  • Fear of conscription prevents the Charedi public from working and creates economic woes for Israel.
  • The secular public hardly gains a sense of equality from the situation in which Charedim cannot work; on the contrary, the sense of equality is further compromised.

Expecting non-Charedi society, those who make real sacrifices to serve in the IDF, to understand the Charedi refusal to enlist is unrealistic and perhaps unfair. Indeed, today’s tumultuous social climate is not disposed toward listening and understanding. However, setting aside the emotional backdrop, lowering the exemption age only serve to reduce inequality. Significant entry into the workforce will do much to alleviate the feeling that Charedim are piggybacking on secular society. It is enough for a few thousand members of the Charedi sector to go to work, and not only will the secular public not be disadvantaged, but they will feel that at least they are not bearing the entire burden of the tax.

As part of the wave of protests against the current government (and its judicial reforms), many among the secular public have argued that they are “funding the evasion” – paying the living costs of Charedi society, from Yeshiva and Kollel budgets to balance grants for Charedi cities and social security allowances. If Charedim enter the workforce en masse, at least this claim will drop from the agenda. There will be greater justification for funding Yeshiva and Kollel institutions since the Charedi public is interested in such funding and bears the tax burden like any other group in the country.

Some have made the argument that Charedi entry into the workforce will create greater identification with Israel, and this, in turn, will lead to greater participation in the IDF. I cannot pass judgment on this assessment; certainly, such trends will be vehemently opposed within Charedi communities. But even absent this, the move is both required and justified. It is an imperfect solution to a thorny issue. But if we consider the alternatives on the table – the Basic Law: Torah Study (which essentially equates Torah study to military service) accompanied by the notorious override clause – it seems to be the best of them. This is most true from the non-Charedi perspective.

How to lower the flames

Some, including Levy (in the aforementioned article), fear that lowering the exemption age will intensify polarization in the Jewish nation. In my opinion, this prognosis is mistaken.

A good move toward minimizing the outrage, even if only a little, is for Charedi politicians to lower their voices – as they have recently started doing. Above all, we need a good dose of humility. We need humility, as Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer has noted in a previous piece, to recognize the moral issue latent in the Charedi refusal to serve in the IDF. And we need the humility to recognize that those serving in the IDF deserve unique benefits.

Certainly, we need to silence the ludicrous argument made by some in the Charedi camp, who oppose lowering the exemption age for fear that this will spark a mass exodus of Yeshiva students from the Yeshiva system. Such claims are reminiscent of Ephraim Kishon’s feuilletons: In the name of an elusive “equality,” we demand that the IDF acts as an enforcer of Torah study by forbidding young men from leaving Yeshiva and running the risk of enforced conscription.

In conclusion, I do not see any good news in the current proposal for those who want to see more Charedim serving in the IDF – though stranger things have happened. Yet, not only does the proposal not set back the relations between Charedim and the state, it even promotes equality in the economic field. In life, as the cliché says, we would do better to be smart than to be right.



Picture: Johnny_Zoo, Wikipedia

11 thoughts on “Lowering Army Exemption Age: A Sowellian Move

  • It is totally wrong to lower the age of exemption, and doing so rewards draft dodging. As for the economic issue, it would probably make no difference. The main issues are education (core curriculum) and the mindset (work as a mitzvah and not a sin). The age is largely immaterial.

    • On the contrary. It will increase the flames by proving conclusively the Toaratam omanutam was always a fiction use to dodge military service.

  • “Ve’asitah et ha’yashar ve’et ha’tov.” Laudable ends must be accomplished in through proper/ethical means. Lowering the consequences of not serving, strikes me as unethical. Kollel was meant for metzuyanim; not every Yosel, Shlomo, and Michoel is an avrech. Those who should be in Kollel, should be there for many years. Lowering the consequences of not serving just perpetuates the absurdity of Kollel for all.

  • Things do not happen in a vacuum. Lowering the army exemption age will fan the ever mounting resentment of those Israelis, both secular and religious, who do assume the burden (and inherent dangers) of defending the country.
    This may (probably would) lead to ever increasing resistance to the draft among Israelis who see themselves being played for “suckers”, defending an ever growing population of draft exempt (forgive the expression) parasites.

  • Fewer 20-60 year old full time “Yeshiva students” would be help Israel. Someone has to pay the bills, taxes and defend the country.

  • Because of advances in technology, the need for masses of soldiers continues to decline. Because of an expanding population, the supply of potential soldiers continues to increase. The result is that there is literally zero need for any Haredi soldiers at all. About 20-25% of 18-year old Haredi males do serve, but even these are not needed.

    By contrast imagine a future, in say they year 2060, when 30% of Israel’s population Haredi, and either unemployed or under-employed. Will the 70% support the 30%? But if you say YES, then consider the year 2100, when the population will likely be 60% Haredi. Will the 40% support the 60%.

    The reality is that Israel cannot survive unless Haredi are integrated into the world of meaingful work. That is what Sowell means by the “constrained view” — political and social reality. Those who insist, however, that Haredi serve at the same rate as non-Haredi have an “unconstrained view” — possibly correct in theory, but never to be achieved. Let’s focus on the real and achievable.

  • In arbitration school, they teach you to have all the parties, put their priorities and goals on the table and then try to find solutions from brainstorming not just from those that have been suggested in the past. One example might be requiring some type of national service.

  • Perhaps the answer is allowing for and emphasizing more of a personal Cheshbon HaNefesh-The Gemara in Chagigah says that HaShem cries over those who are learning full time and should be wiorking and vice versa and tells us elsewhere that if one does not show any promise in five years of learning, that is a sign that he is not cut out for a life predicated on Torasam Umnasam. I may be wrong but I think that I either read or saw that the above was the persective of R AY Steinman ZL,
    In other words, everyone both in the Religious Zionist and Charedi world of draft age should look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they as individuals will contribute more to the defense of Am Yisrael in the State of Israel in the Land of Israel in the IDF or in the Beis Medrash. That might help move the issue away from considerations of partisan politics

  • i think the only real fair solution to the haredi religion vs secular religion [and also dati leumi religion]
    would ultimately be to revise citizenship laws to create a separate class of resident –sort of a ger toshav : allowed to stay, allowed to work , very limited benefits– maybe no right to vote , no right to welfare, but travel under an israeli laissez passer. this removes the hate factor [ well , probably not , but at least it then shows it to be unjustified antisemitism ] as well as the economic burden . no one is calling on arabs to serve, they are unwritten second class citizens . in the haredi case , maybe it just needs to be delineated in law and practice,,,

    this is a fantasy , of course , but more likely than widespread haredi military service….

  • I don’t see anywhere polling of the khilonim whose sensitivities we are discussing. Each side can say what will upset them more, but we really need to ask them. Akin to Mr. Rich’s comment above. (I focus on khilonim because like it or not, the dati l’umi won’t jump ship because of kharedi intransigeance.)

  • What about civil service or an additional tax on those who are capable but refuse to serve?

Write a Comment

Please write down your comment
Name field is required
Please fill email