The haredi conscription bill was expected to pass into law in a final vote on Wednesday morning, as part of this week’s three-day voting marathon on major bills.
While the opposition almost unanimously panned the legislation in its alternative plenum meeting held in protest over the voting schedule, members of the coalition expressed opinions ranging from total support to lukewarm feelings to open rebellion.
“We are not just voting to bring haredim into the army and the workforce. More than anything else, we are voting on the concept that the state has the right and the duty to determine its future and it doesn’t need anyone’s permission,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party championed universal conscription, said.
According to Lapid, voting for the measure is a vote against “a multicultural circus in which every pressure or interest group can say ‘I’m not playing the game, your rules don’t apply to me, we’re willing to get rights but not responsibilities,’” and is “recognition that Zionism is back and is not ashamed of its role as a melting pot in which all parts are equal and is not ashamed to stand up for its principles and fight for them if necessary.”
The bill gives full-time haredi yeshiva students who are currently 22 – approximately 30,000 men – 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 before they turn 26, however, they will be required to perform military or civilian service. Targets will be set for haredi enlistment, which will be nonbinding recommendations during an intermediary stage that ends in 2017.
If the target for 2017 is not met, however, 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 complete exemptions, so they can continue with their yeshiva studies.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Bayit Yehudi chairman told haredi MKs – who were not in the plenum due to the opposition boycott – that IDF service is a mitzva.
“For 2,000 years I waited, through my forefathers, to be a fighter in the IDF, and in this generation we can. King David was gentle when he studied Torah and strong in times of war.
Throughout history, the Torah protected us as the Jewish people; without it we wouldn’t have and we won’t exist, but my haredi brothers, serving in the army is also a big mitzva,” Bennett said.
MK Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi), who led the committee that prepared the bill for its final reading, accused the ultra-Orthodox of hypocrisy.
“Almost all Shas MKs served in the army. Eli Yishai served three years, as did Amnon Cohen, and [party chairman Arye] Deri served for four months. Why doesn’t the younger generation serve? Haredim fought in our wars… MK Uri Maklev [United Torah Judaism] is named after his uncle who was killed in the War of Independence.
I have a message from Agudath Yisrael [one of the parties comprising UTJ] from 1948 calling for men aged 17 to 25 to enlist,” Shaked said.
“It is because of the army that so many haredim are able to study Torah,” Shaked said.
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) attacked those saying the bill would not bring equality: “Everyone wants full equality now, but legislators don’t deal with wishes.
We deal with reality.”
The bill had one surprising supporter: MK Shelly Yacimovich (Labor). The former Labor leader said that if the opposition wasn’t boycotting the plenum, she would have voted in its favor.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave a lukewarm assessment of the legislation.
“This bill was demanded from us by a court decision. Two years ago we said we’d pass a new law.
We made a major effort to do this gradually while taking into consideration the haredi public’s needs and the world of Torah and of course a true attempt not to cause a rift between population groups,” Netanyahu said at the opening of a Likud Beytenu faction meeting on Tuesday.
One coalition MK, Yoni Chetboun of Bayit Yehudi, openly rebelled against the legislation, announcing that he would vote against it.
“This bill was born in sin as part of a wave of anti-religious legislation that wants to challenge our national identity and split up Israeli society,” Chetboun said.
“My Jewish and Israeli worldview does not allow me to be part of that trend.
“This is a culture war, a battle for the face of the country. What kind of state do we want? A Jewish one, or a state of all its citizens?” he asked.
A senior Bayit Yehudi source said that if Chetboun followed through with his threat, he would lose his position as deputy Knesset speaker.
“Chetboun is harming the chances of the referendum bill passing just because he wants headlines in the newspaper,” the source said, referring to the deal in which coalition parties vote for bills they doesn’t fully support so that the other parties back their preferred legislation.
Meanwhile, the opposition spoke out against the conscription bill in a conference room, rather than the plenum, out of protest that they were only allotted 24 hours to speak about each of the three major bills – electoral reform, haredi conscription and referendum on land concessions – being brought to a vote this week.
Despite the opposition’s demand that it be given three days to debate each bill, the MKs only spoke out against haredi conscription in their alternative plenum for less than four hours on Tuesday.
Deri placed the blame for the enlistment bill on settlers, saying “Anytime anyone talks to me about ‘equality in the burden’ [of national service], I will remind that person who the real burden is and why there are troops patrolling all kinds of places.
“I’m starting to think that maybe the person pushing this bill [Lapid] isn’t interested in solving the problem and wants to leave it open all the time, because how else can he get seats in the Knesset, without hatred and incitement?” Deri said.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) said every citizen should enlist in the IDF or perform civilian service, but that can only come through dialogue.
“Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett think they’re gladiators going into battle. It won’t work; it’ll crumble Israeli society,” Herzog said. “This bill won’t bring equality or dialogue.
This bill won’t get haredim to enlist and won’t integrate marginalized groups. This bill is all talk, no equality.”
The most controversial aspect of the haredi conscription legislation 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 bill 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.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.