Why Israel's Special Privileges For Ultra Orthodox Must End

Since its inception, Israel has exempted ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service and offered them a host of subsidies. But as demographics change, many say the policy must end.

In Jerusalem
In Jerusalem
Michael Borgstede

TEL AVIV — An agitated young man is gesticulating wildly with his hands. “I will never let myself be drafted into the army, not at any price,” he says. “This plan by misguided judges and a godless government will fail — and then there will be civil war.”

Chaim Bleich is 19 years old and should be, on this sunny winter day, among the soldiers in Israeli military barracks. Instead the young man with the somewhat sparse beard, wearing black trousers a white shirt, is on his way to a religious school in the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak.

Not far off, Tel Aviv’s high-rises glitter in the sunlight. But being an ultra-Orthodox Jew, Bleich has never even been to the city.

The Haredim — the God-fearing — are a kind of subculture in Israeli society. They follow a particularly strict interpretation of Judaism and keep to themselves. They live in their own neighborhoods, send their children to their own schools, and for a long time were virtually exempt from mandatory military service.

That is now supposed to change, which explains Bleich's warnings about civil war.

Israeli Finance Minister Jair Lapid believes the likes of young men like Bleich should not continue to be exempt from military service. And the country’s top court sent a clear message last week of displeasure to the government about the fact that nobody in parliament seems to feel like burning their fingers on this red-hot issue.

The regulations in force up to now — which virtually exempted young Orthodox men from military service — have now run their course. And the politicians are not able to agree on new rules. So they continue to pay state money to religious schools, although legally the payments should have ceased long ago.

It’s fair to wonder how things ever got this far, because the problem is home-made, and in the history of Judaism there has never been anything like it.

Piece of the pie

In Israel’s founding year, 1948, ultra-Orthodox Jews had as many children as secular families, married at the same age, and were as integrated as secular folks into the job market. But innumerable irresponsible political decisions led to the Haredim being able to pursue a dream of life outside the modern mainstream with what would have been unthinkable consequences elsewhere.

Today, the Haredim make up 10% of the Israeli population; more than a fourth of Israeli first-graders are ultra-Orthodox. Because Orthodox men — in accordance with regulations that prevailed until now — were exempt from military service for so long because they were registered as full-time religious students, many of them never got jobs and therefore paid no taxes.

If something doesn’t change fast, soon only 35% of the population in Israel will be paying taxes and performing military service, Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy warned recently. The new head of the National Bank, Karnit Flug, brought up her concern about the issue during her very first day on the job: “It’s a strategic threat for the Israeli economy and Israeli society — a threat we cannot ignore.”

There are no lack of warnings, then, although there is a distinct dearth of solutions that hold water. Part of that is because of the hardened fronts, with many secular Jews maintaining that Orthodox “draft dodgers” should be made to do jail time, while the ultra-Orthodox are loathe to give up acquired privileges.

Economist Dan Ben David, director of the Taub Center for Social Studies, says unemployment rates in Israel are relatively low. But the number of people not looking for work and thus excluded from the statistics account for 20% of the population — nearly double the OECD average.

“It’s perverse,” David says. “Haredim in Great Britain and the United States earn their livings like everybody else. Only in Israel is the state supposed to finance life-long Torah studies!”

Even the new trend towards Orthodox fundamentalism is an Israeli creation: The renowned New York electronics business B&H is run by ultra-Orthodox Jews, and they don’t have an issue serving secular female customers. In Israel, the problem begins in school: “Religious Jews just don’t acquire the skills to even have a chance on the modern jobs market,” David says.

If you ask Chaim Bleich what he learned in school, he replies with utter conviction: “Everything I need.” But in fact, math and history were only in the regular curriculum in primary school.

He has never taken English or social studies. Since the eighth grade he has only studied the Talmud and the Torah. Time and again, there have been moves to make state subsidies for ultra-Orthodox schools dependent on the introduction of a binding basic curriculum, but the initiatives have failed every time.

Working hours

Motti Geldstein hasn’t given up hope. The head of the Kemach foundation doesn’t see a revolution ahead, but rather a slow road to change. Over the last three years, Kemach has helped some 12,000 Haredim onto the job market, he says. Work is still stigmatized by the religious community, and a worker has a much lower status than a religious student.

“Nevertheless, the figures are encouraging,” he says.

And indeed in 2011 some 45% of ultra-Orthodox men had jobs — a rise of about 20% over the past decade. For women, the figures in 2001 were already 47%, and today the figure is 61%. That’s not surprising: Education for girls is significantly more practically focused. After 12 years of religious and secular studies, girls often get two years of vocational training.

Racheli Ganot, for example, completed her first computer course at the age of 16. She enjoyed it, and pursued computer studies. Today, she is a mother of three and the boss of Rachip, a company that provides software and design for semi-conductor manufacturers. Seventy ultra-Orthodox women like herself work for her, most of whose husbands are studying in the religious schools.

“You know, it’s good that way,” she says. “Nothing is more important than learning, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Anybody seriously planning to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli jobs market needs to proceed with a great deal of sensitivity and invest plenty of money. While the measures introduced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his stint as finance minister from 2003 to 2005 did lead to more Orthodox Jews getting jobs, the poverty rates among the Haredim remained largely unchanged. Meanwhile, the government subsidizes every ultra-Orthodox employee for five years. That’s an incentive companies understand.

Some 800 ultra-Orthodox women work at the Matrix software company in the religious settlement of Modiin Illit. Here, social spaces and cantines are kept separate for male and female employees, the doors have glass partitions so men and women are never left alone together, and two rabbis are on hand to answer important questions, like should I take a break to pray? (Answer: It's not necessary.)

Somewhat shorter working hours make it easier to get the kids out of day care on time, but the price for working in a place in tune with their religious beliefs is significantly lower pay than, say, a programmer in secular Herzliya would be making.

Still, says Itzik Crombie, the Orthodox head of iSale Global who has founded the first high-tech conference for ultra-Orthodox Jews, says some 10,000 religious Jews already work in the technology sector.

The issue of lack of general education doesn’t pose a problem for Crombie. “Anybody who has studied the Talmud and Hebrew numerology for years in a religious school is perfectly capable of learning a programming language,” he insists. “Our brains are made for it!”

But it may be a while before the politics of the issue catches up to the economics. Crombie says he invited all the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members to his recent lecture, and not a single one showed up.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!