Israel's coalition talks are currently stalled. They are stalled mainly over differences concerning the integration of Haredis, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, into mainstream society.
To make a very long story short: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants his new coalition to include both his old allies from Haredi parties and emerging powers like the centrist-secular Yesh Atid party and the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party. But the newcomers aren’t compromising. They want the Haredis out, or forced into a coalition that would agree in advance to draft Haredi men into the military. Haredi parties find such a bargain hard to swallow.
Changing the relations between Israel’s non-Haredi majority and its 9% Haredi minority won’t be simple. It involves three major challenges: greater economic integration (Haredis, who are underrepresented in the workforce, are a great burden on Israel’s economy); participation in the military (Haredis are currently exempt from service so they can study Torah); and cultural influence (Haredis have fundamentally different social mores, especially when it comes to women). As my colleague Dov Maimon and I explain in a new study for the Jewish People Policy Institute, the solutions to these challenges often contradict one another.
A vast majority of Israelis have repeatedly expressed their support for integrating Haredis into the military. They also support (if not with similar zest) their integration into the workforce. But it’s not clear whether they’ve considered the long-term risks.
The presence of Orthodox men in the army already poses problems. For example, some of them refuse to hear female soldiers sing or get into a tank with a female instructor. And now (when the army is making efforts to become more gender sensitive) we want to draft ultra-Orthodox men with even stricter standards of modesty?
If Haredis join the military and the workforce and start taking on additional burdens, won’t they also start making demands in exchange? The Haredi community may be a minority, but it's a strong one: It is growing fast and is more coherent and united than other sectors of Israeli society.
Yes, Haredis are currently dependent on government subsidies- The Israeli public shoulders the costs of their yeshivas and religious schools, of the support given to their large families, and of the tax deductions for the poor neighborhoods where they often live. And if 'we', the rest of the Israelis, pay for 'their' schools, 'we' could always take the funds away if 'they' try to make Israeli society more Haredi.
But what if Haredis do go to work, as many other Israelis seem to want, and no longer need to rely on subsidies? What if they start sharing the burden and wearing uniforms?
The optimists believe that in the course of becoming more integrated, Haredis would also become more moderate. But in another possible scenario, Haredis will continue to have as many children as they do today and will remain just as strict, while becoming economically independent and emboldened by the fact that they now share the “burden” like everybody else.
If this happens, as the Haredi community keeps growing in numbers and becomes less dependent on the state, its cultural demands might make the whole bargain seem less appealing. What if they reinstate a demand to separate the sexes on certain bus routes? What if they demand to have stricter rules for Kosher food in the military?
My point: change is necessary, but isn’t going to be cost-free. Today, we can just say no while hiding an economic stick behind our backs and reminding them that they don’t even serve in the military. Tomorrow this answer might not be convincing enough.