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In Israel, non-Orthodox Citizens Serve the State and the State Serves the ultra-Orthodox

The idea of the social contract is central to modern democracy. Deriving from a combination of the philosophies of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the social contract expressed a few fundamental ideas: People alone are weak and defenseless, and in banding together they can increase their strength and fight off threats. In time, they invent the state, which becomes the representative of the sum total of individuals' interest in self-preservation.

The state not only provides them with security, it also guarantees freedom from outside oppression, and ensures the common interest. In exchange for security, freedom and the enjoyment of public goods (parks, roads, hospitals), citizens in turn agree to take upon themselves obligations that will serve that same common interest. They thus enter into a "contract" with other citizens and the state.

However theoretical this scenario may be, social-contract theory is fundamental to liberal democracy. And it views the relationship between state and its citizens as one of mutual obligations. The power of the state can no longer be total, absolute and arbitrary. The state exists only as long as it is viewed as legitimate by the people, and it is legitimate only if it respects its obligations to its citizens. Failing that, its citizens have both the right and the duty to revolt against the state and overthrow its representatives.

Constitutionalism is an expression of the idea of the social contract: Constitutions, whether written or unwritten, embody a particular social contract, laying down the fundamental terms and conditions for living together in a given state. All constitutions seem to agree that for the contract to work, it needs to be applied equally to all citizens. Other than perhaps a contemporary constitutional monarchy, one cannot think of a social contract in which citizens would agree to transfer their taxes to a group of able-bodied people so that they can enjoy a life of leisure.

A state in which only a portion of the population pays taxes and performs its duty in the form of universal compulsory service, while another enjoys the privileges of leisure and safety, would be feudal. No citizen in the world would voluntarily enter into a social contract that established a caste system equivalent to the kind that existed in medieval Europe, when peasants' labor enabled the members of the Church to live safely and comfortably in their monasteries.

And yet, this is exactly the grotesque sort of regime under which citizens of the State of Israel currently live.

According to analysis of data provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics, a non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish household pays nine times the income tax per household member as an ultra-Orthodox one. The financial support an ultra-Orthodox household receives from the state is 52 percent higher than that received by its non-ultra-Orthodox counterpart. Private ("recognized, unofficial") ultra-Orthodox schools receive preferential funding to that of parallel non-Haredi schools of similar status: Ultra-Orthodox schools receive over 15,000 shekels (about $4,200) per student annually, compared to 11,000 shekels per student in secular schools and 8,000 shekels per student in the Arab sector.

And of course, there is the stupefying exemption from military service: According to 2022 data released by the Israel Defense Forces, approximately 69 percent of all Jewish men in the relevant age group enlisted for military service. Of the 31 percent who received exemptions from the draft, more than half were ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. The data indicates that only an estimated 10 percent of ultra-Orthodox men serve, many or most of them no longer religious, while in largely middle-class Jewish cities like as Modi'in, Ra'anana, Kfar Sava and Herzliya, over 80 percent of men of age are drafted.

The implications are clear: The ultra-Orthodox do not know the hardship and risks of military service and war. Nor do they experience heartbreaking experiences of grief and the perpetual anxiety that someone close will die or be maimed in warfare. Add to this the fact that ordinary Israelis must put off getting on with career and family life during their three years of mandatory service, after which they will struggle for an average of 45 to 50 years to earn a living, juggling the disruption of life and the economic loss that accompany regular reserve duty. All of these are ordinary features of the lives of the non-Orthodox.

There are thus three forms of injustice here, each piled on the other, each more outrageous than the other: The first and most obvious is the fact that the ultra-Orthodox get to live a life of leisure and security at the expense of the hardworking citizens who also fight for the defense of the state. The second – distinct from the first one – is the fact that they get to eat more of the cake that has been laboriously prepared and baked by others.

To be clearer: Having schools that lack math and English studies receiving any state funding, even if it's inferior to that allocated to non-Orthodox institutions, is already a gross injustice. The fact that the ultra-Orthodox, while doing nothing and contributing nothing, in fact get more than the non-Orthodox in term of budgets and benefits is inconceivable. And the third injustice is the emotional welfare they get by eating more of a cake they didn't make in conditions of leisure and perfect security.

The asymmetry and injustice are about to become deeper: If the draft bill now before the Knesset becomes law future recruits will have longer mandatory army service; they will also be subject to longer reserve service, for more years. That in turn means their ordinary lives will be more disrupted, they will incur greater economic and professional loss, and be more likely to suffer loss and injury in war. The expansion of the army means that taxes will probably increase as well, and it is obvious who will carry that additional burden.

De-facto inequalities in burdens and privileges exist in many, if not all, societies. But those described here differ profoundly from the norm: In all societies, inequalities are the involuntary outcome of economic structures; in Israel they are deliberately decided upon by political and coalition agreements. They are inscribed in the social system itself. Israel is the only case in the world where privileges of one group and inequalities are declared and written into law as part of an obscene social contract.

Second, in Israel these inequalities are based on birth. Being born into an ultra-Orthodox family is enough to guarantee one a life of privilege in which others will serve one's needs; no other country we are aware of grants money transfers from the state (like those Israel pays to yeshiva students) to people simply based on their membership in a group. Third: In most societies with severe inequality, the state tries to fight and rectify the situation, whereas in Israel, the injustice is not only imposed by the state on its citizens but it is growing over time, because of the demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox, both in absolute terms and in relation to the general population.

The burdens of military service have increased because they are carried by a smaller percentage of Israeli citizens. For example, in 2016, one out of seven Israeli men in the age group eligible for the draft was a yeshiva student exempt from military service, whereas only five years later, in 2021, the rate had risen to one out of six. Another reason for the increase in the inequalities is that the political power of the ultra-Orthodox parties has also increased. They can better negotiate benefits and exempt themselves from growing burdens on other Israeli citizens (for example, from the budgets cuts imposed by the proposed 2024 budget amendments).

The case of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel has no parallel in the world. It is unique because it is an explicit privilege granted by Knesset decisions and law; it is deeply institutionalized and embedded at all levels of the country's political and social fabric – legal, cultural, political, economic. This group holds a principled and nonnegotiable position that it will not educate its youth to be fully participating citizens of Israel or contribute their fair share to the common good. Yet, it insists on receiving disproportional funding that continues to guarantee its life of leisure (study is leisure, since there are no real constraints, it lets one's imagination and interpretive skills roam freely) and safety.

Perhaps the most offensive example of this one-sided social contract is the proposed draft for the "Basic Law: Study of Torah." Proposed by ultra-Orthodox Knesset members in July 2023, the bill equates the study of Talmud with military service by determining that "those who study the Torah for extended periods of time" would be seen as if they have performed "meaningful service" for the State of Israel "for the purposes of rights and duties."

The distorted relationship between the ultra-Orthodox, the other citizens of Israel and the state has even more far-reaching effects: It affects the Israeli social contract as a whole. Once one group has established a one-sided relationship in which the state is a vehicle for promoting its own narrow sectoral interests, other groups, such as settlers, have the legitimacy to pursue preferential arrangements. While those might not seem as extreme as the ones enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox, the duty of the state to advance the common good – the very idea of equal citizenship – ceases to exist.

Instead, the state is transformed into little more than a pool of resources which different groups try to grab for themselves. Because the state is increasingly serving the interests of ultra-Orthodox and their allies the settlers – it has spectacularly failed the more than 100,000 who were evacuated and traumatized in direct response to the massacres and the attacks from the north. As we saw on October 7, it could not guarantee minimal security; it could not offer immediate and sufficient support – moral or material, to farmers or businesses, and volunteers had to step in to fill the gap.

Even more of a jaw-dropper is the fact that the same people who are working, serving in the army, and dying are the same ones who sent clothes, picked the fruits and vegetables in the deserted fields, informed the distraught families about the fate of their loved ones, and embraced the bereaved. The state was absent simply because it actually no longer serves them. The contract exists only in one direction: The non-Orthodox citizens serve the state and the state serves the ultra-Orthodox.

One might rightly retort that none of this would have been possible without the active or passive collaboration of the non-Orthodox, who in some way accept the current arrangement. Any other people would long ago have fomented an insurrection against a social arrangement which boggles the rational mind and threatens the future of the state. Why hasn't there been such insurrection?

In Solomon's famous parable, the true mother of the child in dispute chooses to forgo her claim so as not to hurt the child. Her true affiliation is made obvious in her willingness to be deprived of her greatest joy, as long as the baby remains healthy. The democratic camp is the Solomonic mother willing to lose everything in order to keep whole the baby it calls the unity of the people.

According to the Gemara (Yoma 9b), the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam (baseless hatred). The idea that a divide within the Jewish people would have repercussions and could even lead to a catastrophe is thus deeply embedded in Jewish thought, and the notion of sinat hinam has been invoked constantly since October 7. Because of this, those who feel responsible for the state are reluctant to cleave the people.

But this position is both wrong and dangerous because the country is led by people who have proven, time after time, that they do not care about the common good or a viable future for Israel. Moreover, the people is already deeply split between those who enjoy a life of privileges and those who toil all their lives and risk their lives; between those who want to destroy democracy and those who want to preserve it; between those who want to build a theocracy and those who want Israel to enjoy international legitimacy. The baby has already been cut in two and the wise leader has long been replaced by wicked self-serving politicians.

"Unity" has a comforting sound to it: one of fraternity and coming together in difficult times. In normal circumstances, we should all strive for unity and fraternity. But in the Israeli context, this is a dangerous fallacy, because such appeals to unity are shamelessly exploited by those who have sowed discord and hatred in the people, Prime Minister Netanyahu being the first among them. Unity is a sham when the state proves over and over again that it does not serve the common interest, but only a power-hungry minority.

For years, Israelis who created and maintained both the economy and its security have quietly accepted these injustices. But October. 7 has revealed and exposed how the infrastructure of the state itself is crumbling and how it is threatening the nation itself. Therefore, the true people of Israel – the one without which the state could not exist – must retake possession of its country. It must reclaim its sovereignty as the Israeli people and rewrite a just social contract. There is, simply, no other way to save Israel.

Eva Illouz and Tamar Hostovsky Brandes