The special Knesset committee for haredi conscription approved the government bill to draft ultra-Orthodox men into military and civilian service for its second and third (and final) readings in the Knesset plenum Wednesday.
The Shaked Committee, as it has been known due to its chairmanship by Bayit Yehudi MK Ayelet Shaked, began deliberations on the controversial bill seven months ago, in July.
Debate during the committee hearings was often fierce and frequently rancorous.
The law will be brought to the Knesset plenum next week for the final stages of the legislative process.
The most controversial aspect of the bill was the stipulation that yeshiva students who refuse to serve will be subject, as all other Jewish men are, to the Law for the Security Services, which provides for two years’ imprisonment for those refusing to enlist.
But several other provisions of the law were equally contentious – in particular, the mass exemptions it provides for all yeshiva students aged over the age of 18 on the day the law is passed.
The bill gives full-time yeshiva students who are currently 22 – approximately 30,000 people – an immediate and complete exemption.
Yeshiva students who are between 18 and 22 when the law is passed can defer their service until the age of 26 and then gain a full exemption.
If they want to leave yeshiva earlier than age 26, however, they will be required to perform either military or civilian service.
Targets will be set for haredi enlistment, which will be nonbinding recommendations during an intermediary stage of the law that ends in 2017.
If the target for 2017 is not met, however, then all haredi yeshiva students aged 18 will thereafter be legally obligated to serve – with a possible six- to 12-month delay – except for 1,800 standout students each year who will get a complete exemption, to continue with their yeshiva studies.
It will be possible for haredi men as old as 26 to be included in the annual targets during the intermediary stage. This clause has drawn criticism from analysts because the army has little use for soldiers aged 24 and above, making it likely that such men would be recommended for the civilian service and not substantial military service.
Draft equality campaigners have also vigorously opposed the lengthy period of the interim stage of the law, which because of the mass exemptions could decrease motivation to enlist.
Such groups have expressed the concern that before obligatory service comes into effect the government could change, with the possibility that haredi parties could enter a coalition and alter the enlistment targets or other critical aspects of the law.
Shaked insisted on Wednesday however that the law would be beneficial to all sectors of society and would “reduce the lack of equality” in military and national service obligations.
“The law was drafted with sensitivity and attentiveness to all the needs of society,” said Shaked in a statement issued by her office.
In her statement, Shaked placed the issue of haredi integration into the work force at the top of the law’s achievements, saying that “special emphasis” had been placed on “going out to work, enlistment to the army and Torah study.”
It is hoped by the bill’s authors that the mass military service exemptions provided by the law will encourage tens of thousands of yeshiva students to leave the study halls and join the workforce.
Shaked emphasized this in an interview with Army Radio on Wednesday, acknowledging that “one of the major goals of the law was to encourage haredim to go to join the workforce.”
Haredi MKs continued to denounce the law because of the possible imposition of criminal sanctions on yeshiva students, which the haredi leadership has described as “criminalizing Torah study.”
Bayit Yehudi and Shaked originally opposed the use of criminal sanctions, but eventually agreed to approve such measures due to Yesh Atid’s threats to leave the coalition if they were not implemented.
Shaked voted against proposed amendments to the bill on Wednesday, thereby confirming the stipulations in the bill for the implementation of the Law for the Security Services, and the criminal sanctions that the law provides for, against anyone refusing to serve.
Shas MK Ariel Attias told haredi news website Kikar Hashabbat that the “Lapid-Bennett” covenant to destroy the Torah world that began with the establishment of the government was breaking new records of hypocrisy and persecution.
“Bayit Yehudi has lifted up its hand against the Torah of Moses with a law that says that Torah study is a criminal act, the punishment for which is two years in jail,” Attias said.
Shaked’s office wrote that Bayit Yehudi had taken steps to “anchor in the law provisions to preserve the Torah world in its different formats,” in reference to the 1,800 exemptions from military service per year for haredi yeshiva students. The statement also touted the party’s success in preventing any significant extension of the national-religious hesder yeshiva program for combined religious study and military service.
Hesder participants are to serve 17 months in the military, up from the current 16-month period of service.
Service for men from the general population had been 36 months, but the committee reduced it to 32 months.
The Hiddush religious freedom lobbying group once again criticized the law, saying it was worse than the previous and much-maligned Tal Law arrangement, and called on the Knesset plenum to send the bill back to committee.
“The coalition has recorded an impressive achievement by approving a law that on the one hand will not bring about the enlistment of one yeshiva student, but has managed to gather together 300,000 haredim against it,” said Hiddush director Uri Regev in reference to the mass haredi demonstration against the law earlier this week.
Regev pointed to the delay in the implementation of obligatory service until 2018 as particularly problematic, as well as the use of criminal sanctions that he said have “no chance of being implemented.”