The majority of Israeli Ḥaredim do not perform mandatory military service, taking advantage of a special law dating back to the country’s founding that exempts yeshiva students from the draft. As a result, those ḥaredi men who would prefer not to pursue a life of religious study and teaching—the norm in their community—are discouraged from seeking jobs, since leaving yeshiva would make them eligible for conscription until they turn twenty-six. Israel’s religious parties have proposed a law that would lower that age by three to five years. While such a measure would ameliorate the problem of low workforce participating by ḥaredi men, and would be unlikely to reduce the number of Ḥaredim serving in the IDF, it is nonetheless unpopular because it further undergirds what many non-Ḥaredim see as a fundamentally unfair system making conscription mandatory for one part of the population and optional for another.
Reportedly, the Knesset has decided to table discussions of lowering the exemption age until after a budget is passed, but the issue is likely to return. Yisrael Groveis, a ḥaredi commentator, makes the case for the law:
Significant entry into the workforce will do much to alleviate the feeling that Ḥaredim are piggybacking on secular society. It is enough for a few thousand members of the ḥaredi 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 tax burden.
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 ḥaredi society, from yeshiva and kollel budgets to balance grants for ḥaredi cities and social-security allowances. If Ḥaredim 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 ḥaredi public [would be bearing] the tax burden like any other group in the country.
Some have made the argument that ḥaredi 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 ḥaredi communities. But even absent this, the move is both required and justified. It is an imperfect solution to a thorny issue.
A good move toward minimizing the outrage, even if only a little, is for ḥaredi politicians to lower their voices—as they have recently started doing. Above all, we need a good dose of humility, [and need] to recognize that those serving in the IDF deserve unique benefits.