Several experts have strongly criticized a proposed plan by New Right leader Naftali Bennett for increasing ultra-Orthodox enlistment to military service, saying the proposals would reduce – not increase – the numbers of haredi men going to the army.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Bennett set out a plan for increasing the numbers of ultra-Orthodox men joining the IDF, writing that his proposals would reduce the age of military-service exemption from 24 to 21 and increase IDF service pay to NIS 3,000.
The former education minister argued that many ultra-Orthodox men stay in yeshiva until the age of 24 simply because the law forbids them from studying in higher-education and gaining employment.
It is believed that thousands of yeshiva students do not fulfil their study commitments required by law for which they get a state-paid stipend, although exact numbers do not exist.
Instead of preventing yeshiva students who have no intention of enlisting to the IDF but who may be interested in finding employment or entering higher education, the state advance those goals by reducing the age of exemption to 21, Bennett argues.
The rationale behind the proposal, said Bennett, was economic, noting that the haredi population is growing rapidly and that the state’s finances would collapse without solving low haredi employment and productivity.
He noted that by the time many ultra-Orthodox men reach the age of exemption at 24, they are already married with children, making it harder to enter higher education, learn skills and find employment.
During the years that yeshiva students unsuitable for yeshiva study waste waiting for the age of exemption, “many waste the most important years they have,” Bennett wrote.
“I acknowledge up front: the proposal is not fair, but it is effective… The principle of ‘don’t be right, be smart’ applies here,” said Bennett.
The increase to soldiers’ wages, from NIS 1,600 a month to NIS 3,000 a month for a combat soldier he is proposing, would serve as an incentive for haredi men to enlist, as well as encouraging other Israelis to enlist, especially to combat units.
“At age 21, the majority [of haredi yeshiva students] will learn a profession, and then go to do quality work... and will pay taxes for the state coffers,” wrote Bennett. “We will see no small number of haredim choosing to enlist in the IDF at an age that is helpful, and we will free up a national bottleneck [as well].”
PROF. YEDIDYA STERN, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said he understood the logic of Bennett’s proposals in trying to prevent ultra-Orthodox men being unnecessarily locked into the yeshiva system and instead pushing them into the work force.
He said, however, that if haredi yeshiva students know they will obtain an IDF service exemption by the age of 21, they will likely remain in yeshiva for three years and then obtain their exemption and go either to work or to higher education.
“This [proposal] will dramatically lower the incentive of yeshiva students to go to the army in the first place,” said Stern.
“They will go to work, but not to the army,” he continued, adding that Bennett’s proposals would likely reduce the enlistment rate in the general population as well.
Stern also argued that the increased salary Bennett is proposing would also be ineffective since it is still significantly below the minimum wage, so that if an individual’s goal is to make money, volunteering in the IDF after the age of 21 would not be a good way of achieving this goal.
Shahar Ilan, an expert on the haredi community, described Bennett’s proposals as “a law for haredi military service evasion, not enlistment,” saying that the law would create a legal system whereby IDF service was an obligation for all other Israeli Jews and a volunteer opportunity for the ultra-Orthodox.
“If a haredi man needs to wait till 21 to get his IDF service exemption, he’ll do so,” said Ilan.
He also noted that the haredi conscription law passed in 2014 by the 33rd government, in which Bennett served as head of Bayit Yehudi, reduced the age of exemption from 28 to 24, but pointed out that the rate of haredi male employment has stagnated in the last three years, while the number of full time yeshiva students has increased.
And Blue and White MK Elazar Stern was also highly critical of Bennett’s proposals, saying – like Stern and Ilan – that there would be no incentive for haredi men to enlist to the IDF if the age of exemption is reduced to 21 years old.
“Why would they volunteer at 21 when they could go and study or go to work?” Stern demanded. “Why would people go to the IDF if they can’t get the minimum wage?”
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