Almost two weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of haredim (ultra-Orthodox) took to the streets in Jerusalem to protest the Shaked Committee’s discussion to impose criminal sanctions for draft evaders in proposed legislation for haredi conscription. The bill, if approved, will come into effect in 2017 and will draft haredim gradually under specific “quotas,” determined by the committee. The law would work under the premise of sharing the military burden equally.
However, there’s also an idea heading the opposite direction – that of a volunteer-professional army.
Yaron Lerman, chairman of the Movement for a Volunteer Army (who ran as the head of the Green Leaf-New Liberal Party in the last Knesset elections) dismisses current efforts to enlist the haredim as “nonsense” and “futile.” He doesn’t believe Finance Minister and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid will actually manage to enlist the haredim into the IDF.
And even if he does, Lerman claims that the service provided by a haredi man will be of little benefit to the state.
“Between funding a haredi in yeshiva and funding a haredi in the army, we [seculars] are better off funding his yeshiva because it costs less,” Lerman says. “The surplus of soldiers the IDF is already suffering from, will only increase because more manpower will be needed: more rabbis, more Education Corps personnel, more logistics soldiers.... With all the costs included, drafting a haredi could cost to taxpayers up to NIS 5,000 a month or more.”
Lerman is referring to two things. First is the problem of surplus of manpower in the IDF, which goes back to the Sheffer Committee – appointed by Maj.- Gen. (res.) Gil Regev in 2003 – that claimed the IDF had as many as 50 percent unnecessary soldiers. The committee recommended shortening the service of all soldiers to two years and cutting military programs that don’t focus solely on security matters, such as social and national programs.
The second matter refers to expenses: The Shaked Committee’s bill, if it is passed, exempts haredim from conscription until the age of 21 (in at least one section of the law). By that age, an average haredi man will have at least two children that the IDF will need to support. By contrast, the existing Nahal Haredi Unit enlists haredim at the age of 18; with no extra expenses because of family, one haredi soldier costs only a few hundred shekels more than a “regular” soldier, due to glatt kosher food and special religious services.
Instead of increasing taxpayers’ expenses, the best solution, according to Lerman, is letting the haredim choose at the age of 18 to either join the army or enter the workforce. Government funding for yeshivot would cease and instead the funds would compensate the haredim who enlist.
“You will be able to pay soldiers NIS 3,000 to NIS 4,000 a month. We are talking about billions of shekels that can go to secular soldiers. That way we can finally start moving towards a volunteer army.”
But not everyone is in agreement with Lerman. The Forum for Draft Equality has criticized the notion of a volunteer army, saying that “the model of the people’s army is what gives us strength to deal with difficulties in our region. What if the youth wouldn’t be willing to enlist in a volunteer army? Who will protect us? Also, we do not wish the army to consist of mainly the lower social class, which we find to be a morally unacceptable.”
Yet societal expectations end up playing a large role for those who wish to enlist.
“We know that secular people come from areas where it’s socially acceptable to join the army,” Lerman says. “We know that the socio-economic background of different sectors in Israeli society will often decide what kind of service an individual will have, be it Army Radio or Golani [infantry corps].”
When asked if there are any voices in the IDF calling for a volunteer-professional army, Yaron says: “The army is a confined system. The generals of the IDF can’t speak against official policy. They’re not politicians.
However, the Sheffer Committee, along with the Ben-Bassat and the Brodet committees [conducted by the Defense Ministry] have all recommended shortening service time for men and increasing soldiers’ wages.”
Lerman believes Israeli society is more willing to accept the idea of a military based on volunteers. He cites as an example Daphni Leef, who did not serve in the IDF, and in 2011 managed to lead hundreds of thousands of Israelis in protests out to the streets. This would not have been possible a decade earlier, Lerman says.
The gradual direction towards a professional military has to happen eventually, he continued.
“It’s inevitable, because there’s no other practical alternative.”
Last week the Green Leaf-New Liberal Party called on its voters to join the Likud and advocate these ideas from within the ruling party. They are already working with factions from within the party who support some of their causes like MK Moshe Feiglin and activist Yaakov Vider, one of the founders of the Likud haredi faction.
Asked whether the bill presented by the Shaked Committee was a win for the haredim or a win for Lapid, Lerman responded by saying: “Lapid gained political points, the haredi establishment lost a little, because it will lose its grip on haredim above the age of 22 who will join Israel’s workforce. But it is the secular who will keep funding the yeshivot, the secular soldiers who will not receive higher wages and the secular who will not serve any less time. The secular liberals lost by a mile.”
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