In February 2012, when the High Court of Justice struck down the “Tal Law,” which provided a framework for haredi exemptions from military service, it was widely acknowledged that Israeli society had reached a turning point.
The law, and its antecedents, had allowed thousands of ultra-Orthodox men to permanently evade military service, while studying in yeshiva and getting paid by the state for doing so.
It was hoped that the Knesset could come up with a law which would be able to right what many continue to see as an ongoing injustice, and a basic lack of fairness within Israeli society.
The resulting struggle to resolve the encumbered issue of haredi enlistment, or lack thereof, to military service is now approaching its zenith, but despite months of debate and deliberation there are still major concerns regarding the viability of the bill under discussion.
The issue has dogged the political establishment for the last two years, and generated untold amounts of column inches, news reports and speculation as to what the new arrangements to integrate the haredim into national service will entail.
And although a bill was drawn up by a government committee in May of last year, fundamental differences of opinion within the coalition on how to deal with the problem have led to continuing uncertainty surrounding some of the most central parts of the legislation.
Two of the most central aspects of the law address firstly, how to create a graduated, but fairly rapid process for the integration of haredi men into national service programs, and secondly, how to treat those who refuse to serve after an interim period expires and the full force of the law comes into effect.
The current terms of the bill state that anyone who is between 18 and 22 on the day the law is passed will be able to enlist if he so chooses, or defer his service until the age of 24, after which he will be able to gain a full exemption.
Anyone 22 and over on the day the law is passed will be able to gain an immediate and full exemption.
And a haredi youth who is younger than 18 when the law is passed will legally be required to enlist, but under the terms of the law will be able to defer his service until the age of 21.
However, several groups and analysts have noted that these terms create a problem; no haredi man will need to enlist for a period of three years from when the law is passed.
The fear is that haredi enlistment will actually significantly decrease from the levels witnessed in 2013 and earlier, during the interim period of the law.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that more than 2,000 haredi men enlisted to the IDF in 2013, which could be as much as 30 percent of the potential haredi draft for that year.
But the government bill requires that by 2017, some 5,200 haredi men – or 75% of the potential draft – enlist to either military or civilian service.
Prof. Yedidia Stern, who heads the Israel Democracy Institute’s project on religion and state and has been heavily involved in recent Knesset efforts to draft haredim, says that from a sociological point of view, it will be extremely difficult to reach the high government targets once enlistment rates have sunk back down.
“The current bill goes from one extreme to the other, and will not prepare the haredi community in a gradual process to share the burden of military service,” says Stern.
He says that on the one hand, tens of thousands of haredim will be exempted from service, while on the other hand once the interim period of the law is over in 2017, anyone not serving will have to go to jail.
“Sociological trends happen gradually, and we can’t expect the government targets for 2017 to be met if no one goes to the army in the next three years. So it is clear that 2017 will be a disastrous moment in our national lives,” says Stern.
According to the daft legislation, if the government target for haredi enlistment for 2017 is not met, then the Law for the Security Services mandating obligatory military service for all Jewish men of military age will be applied to haredi men as well, which until now has not been the case. In other words, haredi men who avoid the draft could face up to two years in prison.
But if in 2017 thousands of haredi men refuse to serve, then, says Stern, serious damage will be done to the notion of the rule of law – as it will be impossible to imprison them.
“You can’t use the law to threaten something which you cannot implement, because it will make a joke out of the principle of the rule of law, it will become a dead letter,” he says.
“No one is going to imprison these people, it will never happen.”
Additionally, haredim are ideologically opposed to putting limits on the number of men who are able to study full-time in yeshiva.
The current bill would allow 1,800 yeshiva students to gain full-service exemptions. But the haredi rabbinic leadership, which sees Torah study as a the holiest and highest calling, beleives attempts to legally restrict the number of those able to study religiously and ideologically unacceptable.
While senior haredi MKs have indicated during the Knesset committee hearings on the issue that economic sanctions against those refusing to serve would perhaps be tolerated, they have made clear that the rabbinic leadership would in all likelihood order civil disobedience and for yeshiva students to refuse to enlist, should the Law for the Security Services be imposed on them.
The potential for serious societal strife is not one to be taken lightly.
Just last week, several thousand haredi men rioted violently in several locations around the country against freezes in payments to some yeshiva students, and against the legislative efforts of the government in general.
The rioters came from a hardline minority grouping, not the mainstream haredi community whose leadership has thus far refrained from calling for mass demonstrations.
People such as Stern, as well as organizations such as Hiddush, a religious freedom lobbying group, fear that the law will simply be changed in 2017, when there will most likely be a new government, because the threat of communal violence and civil disobedience will prevent the implementation of the law currently being drafted.
But MK Ofer Shelah of Yesh Atid, who has been one of the key figures behind the current law, insists that the law cannot be legislated through the prism of what will happen if the haredi public is not willing to accept the law.
“Laws are not made like this,” he says. “The general public has let it be known that it will no longer accept a situation in which a community, de facto, is not obligated by the Law for the Security Services.
And the High Court has said this, too,” he continues, noting that the court struck down the Tal Law because it discriminated against the majority of the population who are obligated to serve.
Shelah says the law was formulated in the best possible legal manner, to bring as many people from the haredi community “to serve and work and be a partner in Israeli society without changing their lifestyle.” However, he is not willing to contemplate what might happen if by the end of the interim period of the law, haredi men refuse to enlist.
“The threat that haredim will not accept or fulfill the law of the State of Israel is not acceptable to me,” he says bluntly. “That isn’t acceptable in a state run by the rule of law.”
“I don’t know what will happen if they [refuse to serve]. Why do I have to say?” he responds, when asked about the viability of implementing the imprisonment of thousands of draft refusers.
If changes can still be made to the bill, then Stern, Hiddush, the Forum for Equality in the Burden of Military Service, a grass-roots lobbying group, and others all argue that the mass exemptions proposed in the current bill are hugely problematic and must be revised.
And while the Forum for Equality says the Law for the Security Services should be implemented, Stern and Hiddush both argue that economic sanctions alone would be sufficient to cajole enough haredi men out of yeshiva and into military service to satisfy all sides of the controversy.
Politically speaking, for now, it appears that Shelah and Yesh Atid are winning this battle.
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid has said that the implementation of the Law for the Security Services on the haredi community was part of the party’s political manifesto, and has threatened to withdraw from the coalition if these terms are not met in the new law.
Bayit Yehudi – whose chairman Naftali Bennett, along with MK Ayelet Shaked, who heads the committee debating the bill – has opposed so-called criminal sanctions, but seems less willing to make similar threats about leaving the coalition to get their way in the manner that Yesh Atid has.
This gives the impression that Yesh Atid will indeed succeed in passing the bill largely in its current format, given the speculation of many that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will not want to be in a position where he can be depicted as having fought for the right of haredim to continue not serving in the military.
But both Stern and Hiddush see this outcome as a political failure.
“The race to impose criminal sanctions is a race to the bottom,” says Stern. “It is being fueled by political calculations, and from a social point of view it is disastrous.”
Moreover, Hiddush made similar comments at the beginning of this week, calling for the members of the special Knesset committee “and especially those of Yesh Atid, to rise above political interests,” and use the tool of economic rather than criminal sanctions.
“The goal must be to accelerate the welcome but slow process of haredi integration into national service and the economy, and to [thereby] advance the value of equality of bearing the burden of service,” said Hiddush’s director and deputy-director Uri Regev and Shahar Ilan.
“Economic sanctions are the best way to achieve this, without plunging Israel into physical and violent confrontation with the haredi public,” they concluded.
The key aspects of the bill are scheduled to be voted on in the Knesset committee next week, or the week after at the latest, but it seems less likely that major changes are going to be made at this stage.
Those arguing in favor of revising some of the key provisions of the legislation warn, however, that if not done now they will, by necessity, be made at a later date – when Israeli society is paying the costs of the current political posturing.