‘Historic’ nature of Peri bill yet to be tested by reality

Whether or not such symbolism provides the impetus for achievements of greater substance remains to be seen.

July 7, 2013 22:46
3 minute read.
Haredi boy peers out of crowd

Haredi boy peers out of crowd 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

As the government approved the Peri Bill for passage to the Knesset on Sunday – a decision lauded by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other assorted members of the coalition – independent observers and draft equality campaigners issued a more circumspect perspective on the importance of the proposed law.

Netanyahu, Lapid and Minister for Science and Technology Yaakov Peri, who headed the committee to draft the bill, all spoke about its historic nature and of righting a long-standing injustice in Israeli society.

But the measure by which the bill, should it be passed into law, will be assessed is its efficacy, or otherwise, in increasing haredi enlistment in military and civilian service programs.

And doubt has been expressed in several quarters that the Peri bill will succeed in this, its central goal.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Prof. Tamar El Or of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert in haredi society, said that the main goal for the state remains the integration of the haredi community into the work force and as such, it would have been better to address this issue than to score political victories on the issue of enlistment.

She also expressed concern that the law as it is, which would lead to imprisonment for a yeshiva student who refuses to enlist, could cause chaos if the haredi leadership carries through on threats to issue a blanket ban on enlistment and instructs yeshiva students to go to jail instead of performing military or civilian service.

This threat, which has been made more than once, was repeated on Sunday by senior United Torah Judaism MK Ya’acov Litzman.

The Hiddush religious-freedom lobbying group has also expressed concern with the clause in the bill mandating imprisonment for draft refusal, which is the only form of sanctions the law would levy on an individual refusing to enlist.

Hiddush director and Reform Rabbi Uri Regev said last week that the expectation that it would be possible to enforce enlistment through imprisonment was “baseless,” whilst heavily criticizing other aspects of the Peri committee’s bill.

And it is not only the type of negative incentives suggested by the new legislation that has created concern.

Once the law goes into effect, anyone who is 18 or older on the day the legislation is enacted will be entitled to a complete exemption, either immediately or after several years.

Those who are younger than 18 will be obligated to serve but can defer service till the age of 21, meaning that until 2016 there will be little motivation for haredi men to enlist.

The latest data available on haredi enlistment, from 2011, showed that close to 30 percent of the potential haredi annual cohort performed either military or civilian service. Concern has been expressed by several observers that even this rate of enlistment will be at risk in the coming three years.

The Forum for Equality in the Burden of Military Service, a campaign group, certainly thinks so, and said that it guaranteed haredi enlistment in 2014 would not exceed that of 2012.

What is most worrying to advocates of draft reform and haredi enlistment is the deadline set by the Peri bill.

It provides for an interim period during which enlistment targets will be set, but will not be mandatory, until 2017.

The fear is that once 2017 comes around, the current government, which features no haredi parties, will have already fallen, and new elections will bring in a new coalition, possibly featuring the ultra-Orthodox factions once again who may undo the law the Peri committee has worked so hard to draft.

Of course, it is possible that such doomsday predictions are not fulfilled. El Or noted that for some haredim the new law was good news as it provided an escape route from a life that, for some not cut out for permanent, full time yeshiva study, is inappropriate.

El Or said that for such members of the community who have been searching and waiting for brave leadership from their rabbis and political leaders, the government intervention could be a welcome development.

She also noted the bill’s symbolism, being the first attempt by the government in the country’s history to mark an end to haredi dependence on the state and the beginning of an era in which the community would have to take care of itself.

Whether or not such symbolism provides the impetus for achievements of greater substance remains to be seen.

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