“We’re verging on a trajectory of Israel slipping toward a third-world economy, and a third-world economy can’t sustain a first-world military,” says Yohanan Plesner, a Kadima member who chaired a committee to rewrite the exemption. “I see this as no less than an existential threat.”
…The military exemption is contingent on ultra-Orthodox men continuing to study, making them unable to work legally. Meantime, their separate, state-funded schools offer scant preparation for decent jobs; secular subjects such as math and science are not taught to boys after eighth grade. Currently, 60 percent of Haredi families live in poverty.
This situation is unhealthy and unsustainable. Low workforce participation by Haredi men — and Arab women — “will not only result in a further increase in poverty but also undermine Israel’s overall growth potential and fiscal sustainability,” the International Monetary Fund warned recently. Bringing the ultra-Orthodox into the military would offer a glide path for integrating them into regular society.
This assimilation is, from the ultra-Orthodox perspective, precisely the problem: the threat of losing youth to the lure of secular life. Some extreme elements are anti-Zionist; others believe they serve the state, and protect troops, with Torah study and prayer. The more pragmatic recognize that more service is inevitable, but they want to postpone the day of reckoning as long as possible, to age 23 or even 26 instead of the usual 18.