Experts urge less confrontation to solve haredi military service quandary

Politically explosive issue may risk coalition stability.

Israel police carry a haredi protestor during an anti-conscription demonstration in Jerusalem, March 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israel police carry a haredi protestor during an anti-conscription demonstration in Jerusalem, March 2018
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
This Passover, many MKs, ministers and politicians will be relaxing during their time off and perhaps basking in their success at having managed to keep the government standing in the face of a dramatic crisis over the perennial problem of drafting haredi men into the IDF.
Despite the posturing and fiery declarations from both the haredi political parties and their opponents in the coalition, all sides compromised to some extent and agreed to concede on what had apparently been points of principle in order to keep the government alive.
But although the various members of the coalition afforded themselves a period of respite in which to enjoy some relative political peace this Passover, they may quickly find themselves up against the wall once more when the Knesset’s summer session gets underway at the end of April.
Because what was achieved was not a solution but rather an extension to actually tackle the problem.
And the truth is that it will be almost impossible for the main protagonists of this confrontation, haredi political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas versus Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, to reconcile their respective requirements from a new law.
Liberman has tacked hard-secular in recent months due to his declining poll numbers, and will look foolish if he does not follow through on threats to quit the government if a law passes that pays mere lip service to his demand for greater haredi participation in the IDF.
At the same time, the right for haredi men to study unhindered Yeshiva is a sacred symbol in the haredi world and amongst its leadership, and, under the added pressure from extremists in the sector, UTJ and Shas are unlikely to make any serious concessions that would significantly boost the number of young men from the sector enlisting to the IDF.
So the reality is that although elections were halted at the last moment before the end of the Knesset’s winter session, the coming summer session is very likely to be this government’s last, barring unforeseen concessions by one of the two warring sides.
Haredi protests near the Chords Bridge in Jerusalem (Credit: Seth J. Frantzman)


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But while successive governments have failed to adequately deal with this problem because of political constraints, there are proposals which some experts believe would provide a solution for Israeli society, the IDF’s defense requirements and the High Court of Justice.
Although the political reality in which at least one haredi party has been present in 12 out of the 16 governments since 1981 will mean that passing measures which would truly tackle the issue in the next government will be unlikely, it is nevertheless valuable to see what, in an ideal world, could solve this most intractable of problems.
It is also worthwhile to evaluate how efforts thus far to draft haredi men into military service have fared.
The number of haredi enlistees began to significantly increase in 2007, when the government began to implement the Tal Law, five years after the legislation was actually passed.
Since then enlistment rate has steadily, if unspectacularly risen, and is currently at an annual rate of about a third of the annual haredi cohort of men reaching 18, although this figure is distributed among six separate cohorts.
Targets for military enlistment established under the law passed at the best of Yesh Atid in the previous government in 2014 have not been totally met, but at the same time have not been missed by much.
The target for the military enlistment year July 2016 to June 2017 was 3,200, with 2,850 haredi men actually enlisting, missing the target by approximately 11 percent.
In 2015/2016, the target was 2,700 with 2,475 enlisting, and in 2014/2015 the target was 2,300 with 2,203 enlisting.
So the number of haredim enlisting is rising year on year, and the enlistment targets have not been missed by much. That said, the gap between the target and the actual number of enlistees has been growing.
And this is to say nothing of the concerns that large numbers of those who do enlist to haredi tracks in the IDF might not actually be haredi.
The previous legislation defined a haredi person as someone who studied for at least two years between the age of 14 and 18 in a haredi educational institutions.
But critics have argued that this definition is sufficiently narrow to allow men from the margins of the haredi community to be included in the IDF’s numbers, while those in the mainstream continue to avoid service, meaning the ideological barrier to haredi military enlistment is not overcome. 
It also leaves open the possibility for youths who are no longer haredi or even religious at all to join such programs and inflate the IDF’s numbers.
And another important component of the previous legislation for haredi enlistment, that of the civilian service track, has badly foundered.
The civilian service program was designed as an alternative for haredi men to military service, and enlistees can work in fields such as health care, welfare, education, environmental protection and security fields such as the fire, ambulance and Prisons Service, as well as the Israel Police.
However, the 2014 law gave mass exemptions to some 30,000 haredi men aged 22 to 26 in order to encourage them to join the work force, and therefore dried up the pool of potential enlistees to the civilian service.
In 2015/2016, just 737 haredi men signed up for the civilian service from a target of 1,800, while even fewer, 667, enlisted in 2016/2017 from a target of 2,000, barely a third.
Although there are clearly significant problems in the effort to increase the number of haredi men performing military or civilian service, substantial foundations have however been laid which could be built upon, under the right circumstances, to bring up enlistment to levels which will be able to satisfy both the state’s security requirements in the future and the High Court of Justice’s demands for equality, or at least a semblance thereof.
One principle which most experts on the issue acknowledge is that it is physically and societally impossible to force anyone, including haredi men, to perform military service.
Mass incarceration of draft dodgers would be similarly undesirable, not to mention unfeasible,  and would lead to civil unrest and likely mass civil disobedience in the haredi sector, while the rule of law is trampled underfoot without consequence.
The Hiddush religious pluralism lobbying group has long lobbied for the drafting of haredi men into military service, but was among several organizations and experts which argued against Yesh Atid’s law which stipulated that obligatory enlistment, through gradual implementation, be imposed by 2017, with draft dodgers liable to imprisonment if they did not enlist.
As it transpired, the government fell before 2017 so the law was never actually implemented, a clause which was itself heavily criticized by opponents of the legislation.
Hiddush director Rabbi Uri Regev says that the organization is still opposed to any attempt to coercively force haredi men to serve, calling the notion of criminal sanctions and imprisonment “a fantasy.”
Regev also says that there is “great value” for the Jewish state that significant numbers of Jewish men devote a substantial amount of time to Torah Study, so as to generate an intellectual elite of Torah scholars.
But, he insists, the burden of military service must be shared more equally within Israeli society and this principle cannot be cast aside for political expedience, pointing to polls that demonstrate high public support for such policies.
Hiddush therefore proposes that a quota of 1,400 haredi men every year be given military service exemptions based on objective criteria of excellence, and allowed to continue with their Torah studies, and be funded by the state, comparing such a program to those available to athletes and those in the arts.
The IDF would then be able to draft whoever it wants from the remaining pool of eligible haredi men, and those who are not wanted can enlist to the civilian service program.
In order to induce higher rates of enlistment, various economic and civil sanctions would be imposed on those avoiding the draft, such as revoking the stipend which the state pays to yeshiva students and the funding provided to yeshivas.
In addition, the kind of sanctions imposed on husbands who deny their wives a divorce, such as revoking their driving license or passport, and similar measures could also be employed, says Regev.
“We should not pay for the conscious choice of haredi men to defy the draft,” said Regev.
“You can opt out of the army, and there may be little I can do about it, but I’m not going to view you as a legitimate recipient of state subsidies,” he argued.
Professor Yedidya Stern, a vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute and someone who has advised the government on haredi enlistment efforts, is of the same mind that no effective measures can or should be taken to forcibly draft haredi men into the army on pain of imprisonment for refusing to do so.
And he, like Regev, believes that Torah study is an important endeavor in the Jewish state, and one worthy of support.
Stern has however a sightly different, and perhaps less confrontational way of bringing haredi men into the IDF.
Firstly, he reasons that a goal of drafting two thirds of every annual cohort of haredi men turning 18 should be sufficient for the country’s future security needs and to satisfy the demand for equality of the High Court.
He also believes that this goal could be reached within as little as five years.
The two thirds figures is based on the consideration that it is widely believed that yeshiva study, a rigorous and intellectually demanding pursuit of Talmudic legalese is really only suited to about one third of haredi boys.
Some haredi educators have themselves said that only one third of haredi students can and do really study at a high level on a sustained basis, and therefore a large pool remains for whom long term study is not a good option.
Stern also points to haredi Jews in the Diaspora where he says only a third of the community pursue yeshiva study full time.
Critically, he says it is vital to allow haredi men to enlist only when they are 22, by which age the majority are already married and may also have a child or two.
This is the real opposition within the haredi leadership to military service enlistment is not on actual ideological grounds, but simply because there is a fear that haredi men will lose their haredi identity in the army.
The haredi rabbinic leadership frets that the plethora of different lifestyles of IDF soldiers and officers could represent a powerful attraction for young, haredi men who live an insular life within their community walls.
At the age of 18, unfettered by the responsibilities and ties of family life, they are impressionable and more malleable, and the community’s leadership worries that large numbers will fall away from the community if they enlist, particularly if they do so at the tender age of 18.
Although enlisted soldiers with families are far more expensive for the IDF than unmarried men, Stern believes the investment to be justified for the societal goals inherent in haredi enlistment.
He also notes that of the haredi men who complete military service, some 91% have gone on to find employment afterwards, meaning they will constitute a net financial gain for the state over their working lives.
In order to properly incentivize enlistment, Stern says that increasing targets would be set for a five year period until the two thirds figure is reached, and the state would promise to increase funding for the yeshiva students who remain in yeshiva as long as those targets were met.
Should the targets be met for two years in a row, then the resulting budget increase would be at an even higher rate, and so on, until the fifth year.
Should the targets not be met then a commensurate cut to the budget for yeshivas and yeshiva student stipends would be enacted.
And should the targets not be met for two years in a row, the budget cuts for yeshivas and students would be even more severe, with ever increasing cuts to the yeshiva budget for every year the targets are missed.
Stern says the law would need to be implemented immediately, so the targets come into effect in the very first year after the legislation is passed.
The professor says he believes no other inducement would be needed, and opposes civil sanctions which he says would antagonize the haredi community and be seen as a frontal attack on their lifestyle, and one liable to result in serious opposition to such a system.
Stern acknowledges that the haredi political parties would be unlikely in the extreme to allow such a law to be legislated while they are in government, and would oppose it vehemently if they were in opposition.
He reasons however that such a law would not lead the haredi rabbinic leadership to call for mass civil disobedience and says the rabbis would eventually live with it for two reasons.
Firsly, the enlistment age of 22 would nullify to some extent the concern that haredi men would leave the community, and secondly because the rabbis themselves understand anyway that the majority of haredi men are unsuited for prolonged yeshiva study.
That being the case, and given assurances that they can preserve their haredi way of life in the army, the motivation to zealously and aggressively oppose military service would be significantly reduced.
Unfortunately, the political will to implement such a program appears to be scant because of the critical position of the haredi parties in the country’s political system.
And even without the haredi parties, the political will to not pass a draconian law, as happened in 2014, would also need to be found.
As remote a possibility there is that a reasonable solution to this encumbered and complex problem can be enacted, it should at least behove the country’s political leadership to study and understand the available solutions that could extricate us from this quandary.