Since at least 1999, when the government of prime minister Ehud Barak, who ran on a campaign of “draft for everyone,” appointed the Tal Committee, successive governments have tried – some more sincerely than others – to find a way to gradually integrate haredim into the IDF and, afterward, into the job market.
In July 2002, the “Tal Law” was passed. It gave ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students the option of deferring their military service until 22, at which time they had a “decision year” during which they could leave the yeshiva and undergo vocational training and decide whether to enlist for a minimum of 16 months or perform a year of national service or return to the yeshiva.
The law also provided for the IDF’s Orthodox units, such as the Nahal Haredi, to be expanded.
But a decade later it had become clear that the Tal Law was an utter failure, in part because those involved underestimated the haredi population’s determination to preserve their way of life and in part because many aspects of the law were not implemented properly. The High Court of Justice ruled that the Tal Law had to be replaced with a more egalitarian draft policy.
One option could have been to turn the IDF into a professional army. This would have avoided a direct confrontation with a growing haredi population without job skills. It would have also solved the problem of Arab non-service.
This option was never seriously considered, however, in part because mandatory military service is so central to the Zionist ethos.
Instead, lawmakers vowed to “equalize the burden” once and for all. The Plesner Committee had a go at it, then the Peri Committee tried, and finally the Knesset special committee for government legislation on haredim headed by MK Ayelet Shaked was appointed.
Expectation was high that finally a serious attempt would be made to live up to the High Court ruling and right an historic injustice. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation Shaked announced late Wednesday is so badly worded that the High Court might very well declare it to be unconstitutional.
The most problematic aspect of the bill is a de facto exemption for all haredim between now and mid-2017.
Technically, the sweeping exemption is only for haredi men older than 22. But during the “adjustment period” that lasts until mid-2017, haredi men who are presently aged 18 to 22 will be able to postpone their enlistment year after year.
As a result, during this “adjustment period,” no haredi men aged 18 or more will be obligated to enlist in the IDF. The law as presently worded actually encourages young haredi men not to enlist and instead to hold out until the age of 22, at which time they will receive a complete exemption. The present trend of impressive growth in the number of haredi enlistments would probably be reversed. In other words, not only would this legislation fail to improve the situation in the short term, it would make matters worse.
Meanwhile, most media attention has been focused on the criminal sanctions that the Shaked committee agreed to include in the law. These sanctions would not, however, go into effect until after the present government ends its four-year term, there is a high likelihood that the next government, which will probably include haredi parties, would scrap this clause in the law altogether.
At least since 1999, when the Tal Committee was appointed, there have been repeated attempts to gently nudge haredim into mandatory IDF service. All of these attempts have failed. In its present wording, the Shaked Committee’s proposed legislation follows this long line of failures. The High Court will probably knock it down, as well it should, because it violates the principle of equality.
Only by gradually and steadily increasing the number of haredim who serve, through a combination of economic incentives, sanctions and even imprisonment (which is the fate of a non-haredi draft-dodger) can we hope to bring about a fairer sharing of the burden. We have waited this long, we can wait a little longer for the Shaked Committee to go back to the drawing board and draft more effective legislation that has a chance of achieving this goal.