Rarely do we see issues in Israeli politics where rhetoric and the truth behind it are so far apart.
The haredi conscription law (presented as an amendment to the Security Service Law), passed last Wednesday, demonstrates just that. The law enjoyed a great deal of publicity as fulfilling the legislation mandated by the Supreme Court and the Israeli voters’ expectations amplified in last year’s Knesset elections. However, the law’s actual provisions will unfortunately fail to achieve equality in sharing Israel’s civic burden and may cause the exact opposite.
Outside of Israel, this issue is further from the public eye, but it is one of the most hotly-contested issues for Israelis today. One of the key controversies in the legislative process was over sanctions against yeshiva students who refuse to enlist in the army. For a while, it seemed like reason would prevail and the committee chair MK Ayelet Shaked and her party, Bayit Yehudi, would accept Hiddush’s urging to penalize draft dodgers with economic sanctions, not criminal penalties.
They seemed to understand the unrealistic and negative consequences of drafting haredi students using prison penalties. But in the end, politics outweighed reason. The committee succumbed to Yesh Atid’s threats to leave the coalition if criminal sanctions were not adopted.
Imprisonment is clearly a justified sanction for draft dodgers. But it is impractical and unrealistic to jail thousands of yeshiva students, backed by hundreds of thousands of religiously- driven supporters. The massive haredi demonstrations, recently in Jerusalem and only a few years ago at the Immanuel Beit Ya’acov School (that refused admission to Sepharadi girls and disregarded explicit court orders) have set the precedent for what to expect if there are protests.
This acquiescence, to which Prime Minister Netanyahu grudgingly submitted as well, was clearly political.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid got his way by enacting criminal sanctions and Bayit Yehudi had their demands met to preserve the Zionist Hesder Yeshiva network (combining yeshiva study and expanded economic benefits with merely 17 months in the army, while other young men serve 36 months). This army track perpetuates privileges and preferential treatment enjoyed by a significant sector of Bayit Yehudi’s political and ideological support base.
After forcing his will on the Shaked Committee, Finance Minister Lapid was quick to hold a press conference, triumphantly announcing that a “65-year-old historic distortion has been rectified and Zionism is back.”
In describing the “rectification” of this historic distortion, Lapid stated, “as of next month, every haredi youth will receive a draft summons.” Even these few words demonstrate his illusory interpretation of this law. The haredi youth will not receive draft summons, but will be summoned for a “first call” for medical checkups and bureaucratic processing. Opting for criminal sanctions raises doubts about whether the haredi youth will even show up for the first call. Many haredi rabbinic leaders indicated they would now instruct their students not to do so. There is a long way to go until they are drafted, and even if the law is fully implemented – most of them are not expected to do any military service under the law’s current provisions.
The compulsory draft, even in its limited scope applying to a minority of yeshiva students, will only take effect in four years (after the next elections) and will start off with large-scale exemptions. Close to 30,000 yeshiva students ages 22-28 will be immediately exempted from army service. Similarly, close to 20,000 additional yeshiva students who are currently between 18 and 22 years old will receive full exemptions at age 24.
The law bases haredi service on modest draft quotas. Yeshiva students will volunteer to fill those quotas and if they are not met, sanctions will be used. The major problem is that even these modest target quotas are not fixed in the law. The government may choose to lower them rather than implement sanctions.
For 2016, the government set the quota for 3,200 yeshiva students to voluntarily enlist in the army, and 2,000 for national service. With these massive exemptions, it is unlikely these draft quotas will be met.
The law’s definition of “haredi” is vague enough to include non-haredi recruits, as evidenced already in the “Netzach Yehuda” battalion. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva dropouts will qualify to fill these quotas.
The law suffices that if the recruit studied for two years in a haredi institution between ages 14 and 18, he is considered haredi. There is also an expressed fear that the greatly limited service would mostly apply to Sephardi students and not to the Ashkenazi yeshiva population.
Given these defects, it is no wonder that the some key legislators openly belittled the proposal. The committee chair responsible for preparing the proposal, MK Ayelet Shaked, admitted herself: “Anyone who talks about equal civic responsibility is making a mistake. There is no equality.” Housing Minister Uri Ariel explicitly stated: “No Yeshiva student will be drafted. So long as he studies Torah – there’s no chance that he will be drafted. You have my word for it.” Similarly, MK Yoni Chetboun, also from Bayit Yehudi and the only MK to vote against the law even in its diluted form, said every trick possible was used to produce a “punctured draft law.”
The army should choose its recruits with the exception of a small number of elite students. Hiddush recommended 1,500 students and the law allows 1,800. We emphasized the need to implement objective testing to choose these students, but the law permits the yeshivot to decide. This policy is a sure way of selecting students based on political and family pressures rather than by an unbiased procedure.
This arrangement may provide the army with bodies, but not necessarily able-bodied soldiers, or the sharpest minds. Instead of addressing security needs, the bill responded to political circumstances.
While the haredi leadership is united in denouncing compulsory service and criminal sanctions, many haredi leaders are quietly smiling: they realize this law will keep the majority of the yeshiva students out of army’s ranks.
The Supreme Court has already been presented with petitions challenging the law’s constitutionality. Pitting the Supreme Court once again against Israel’s cynical politicians, the court will be torn between its reluctance to intervene in such a politicized minefield and the obvious non-delivery of a law that meets the basic criteria of equality; the Court’s reasoning for invalidating the Tal Law as unconstitutional in 2012. Hopefully the court will not be intimidated by political ire.
Hiddush’s 2013 Religion and State Index found that while 82 percent of Israelis want the haredi population to serve, only 47% support the government’s actual enlistment plan. Once the public understands how deceiving this political product turned out to be, the public’s anger will grow. This reaction will probably be a key feature in future political debates, with a particular acceleration around the next elections, when much of the real picture will become clearer. The bill’s sponsors’ claim that they fixed this rift in Israeli society shows their severe disconnect from reality and ensures that this problem will plague Israel for years to come.
The author, a rabbi, is president of Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel, an Israel-Diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality.