DURING the violent birth of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, its first prime minister, allowed 400 ultra-Orthodox Jews (also called Haredim) to avoid compulsory military service to pursue a life of Talmudic study. He may have thought they were too few to matter, or that their endangered traditions should be nurtured after the Holocaust. Seven decades on, however, the number of such yeshiva students has exploded to 60,000. They are still allowed to dodge the draft, and many do not work, either. Other Israelis resent this.
The clash between those who serve God and those who serve their fellow citizens was on display on the streets of Jerusalem on September 17th. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox protesters had gathered to denounce a decision by Israel’s high court—the third in two decades—that the exemption of yeshiva students from military duty was unconstitutional because it enshrined inequality. Many were followers of a rabbi whose son was arrested in March after refusing even to apply for the required exemption papers. Police cleared them off the streets by using water cannons and their fists.
A small but growing number of ultra-Orthodox men serve in the army, often in bespoke units where religious strictures, such as sex segregation, can be maintained. The army says that, of its intake of 98,000 recruits last year, 3,200 were Haredim. Owing to their needs, drafting thousands more would be a logistical nightmare that many generals would prefer to avoid. What is more, Haredi political parties, which have been an integral part of most Israeli coalitions in recent decades, would bring down the government if a full draft were enacted. As a way out of the political and legal conundrum, some ministers in the right-wing coalition of Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, want the power to pass legislation that is immune from review by the high court.
In practice, it is not just the Haredim who avoid military service. Arab Muslims, around 20% of the Israeli population (excluding the occupied territories), are exempt; so are many Jewish women. Among 18-year-old Jews (including the Haredim), 28% of males and 42% of females avoided the draft last year.
Equality is a slippery concept. Men serve longer in the army than women. Pay and conditions vary widely between, say, combat soldiers and those with clerical duties. Units involved in cyberwarfare produce veterans with skills and connections that help them find jobs at tech firms. Strenuous and life-endangering service in the field, by contrast, creates fewer and less lucrative opportunities on civvy street.
Rather than force Haredim into uniform, the government might do better to nudge them to learn more practical skills and join the workforce. Israel’s unemployment rate is only 4%, but productivity is low and many Haredim are not even looking for work. Many lack relevant skills; some shun the secular world. A study by the finance ministry shows that, despite efforts to boost jobs for Haredim, their participation rate in the labour force has fallen by three percentage points to 51%, compared with 89% in the rest of the Jewish population. Among those aged 25-34, when young men typically join the workforce, the rate is a dismal 41%. Military service may help some into the jobs market. But integrating the Haredim into modern Israel will take more than just giving them a gun.