Soldiers from the Nahal Haredi unit, the ultra-Orthodox battalion in the Israel Defense Forces.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Every eighth person in Israel – about a million of us – is ultra-Orthodox.
This is the youngest community in the world: half of its members are below 18 – the age of compulsory enlistment to the IDF.
If these young people follow in the footsteps of their fathers and opt out of military service, the quantity issue – the sheer lack of a sufficient number of soldiers – will be accompanied by a quality issue, threatening Israeli society on at least three levels: From a security perspective, we will rapidly approach a situation in which half of the cohort that is of enlistment age will not put on a uniform. It is only natural that the other half will lose their patience with the lack of equity, and the model of the “people’s army” based on legislation that stipulates universal service will collapse.
Can the alternative model – a professional army – provide the level of security we need? That is far from clear. It follows that the country’s very security depends on the decision of the ultra-Orthodox community.
From a social perspective, an arrangement that allows mass deferments and discriminates among different population groups reignites the passionate debate that triggers mutual demonization between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the public. There are grounds for the fear that we will slide down the slippery slope into a religious/cultural war.
From an economic perspective, ultra-Orthodox men who defer military service must, as required by law, continue studying in a yeshiva and are forbidden to enter the job market. Thus, the rate of labor force participation among ultra-Orthodox men is 38% lower than among their peers; similarly, their productivity is low because of the low level of their vocational education. The result: Israel’s GDP is poorer by about NIS 8 billion a year. This huge albatross is strangling the national economy.
Against this background, the issue has reached the High Court of Justice no fewer than 10 times. Governments have fallen, hundreds of thousands have gone to the streets to demonstrate, and two laws passed by the Knesset to deal with the draft dispute have been struck down by the High Court.
LAST WEEK the Defense Ministry published a proposal for a new draft law for discussion in the Knesset. Can this version succeed in finding the balance between clashing interests and values? The proposal is quite mild and lenient with regard to the ultra-Orthodox – perhaps too much so. The annual draft quotas that it cites are quite low (such that it would take a decade for only half the eligible men to be expected to serve); the definition of “ultra-Orthodox” for the purpose of meeting the draft quotas is broad (“dropouts” who are no longer leading an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle are included); meeting the draft quota includes not only young men come to the recruitment office but also those who choose to do National Service; and so on. The proposal would even permit ultra-Orthodox recruitment to fall short of the quota targets over the next two years, with no sanctions attached. That is, it guarantees peace and quiet, no matter how many men serve, for the next two years, which is an eternity in political terms.
Still, the major innovation in this proposal is that, for the long term, it would provide a legal anchor for annual conscription targets for the ultra-Orthodox and impose economic sanctions on the yeshivot should the community fail to meet the quotas. Even if the quotas are low and the sanctions weak, the introduction of this norm into a social contract enacted by the Knesset would be an important achievement on both symbolic and practical levels. It is possible that these new ideas would allow the law to overcome the hurdle of the inevitable High Court hearing.
As can be expected, the proposal is under attack from all sides.
Those who demand “equality now” are frustrated by the snail’s pace of dealing with the problem of inequality and are apprehensive that the ultra-Orthodox politicians will find a way to erode the economic bite of the sanctions by way of alternative budgetary channels.
They need to understand, however, that the proposal seeks to introduce radical changes that run contrary to key ultra-Orthodox tenets. If, within a decade, most of the ultra-Orthodox do indeed begin to share the burden in one way or another, we will have witnessed a fundamental change in how they relate to the state.
At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox are protesting the very idea of sanctions imposed for studying Torah – even if these penalties would hit them only in their pockets.
Let them rest assured: This is not punishment in the criminal sense. Rather, it adapts the level of the state’s support to match the government’s policy on the appropriate balance between the important value of Torah study and the important value of equality and sharing in the national burden. The government sets policy in other matters – public health, internal security, and higher education – and uses the national budget as a lever for reaching optimal results, and the same applies here.
The High Court of Justice rightly identified the issue of military service of the ultra-Orthodox as the “most sensitive rift in Israeli society.” Will the proposed bill, with all its shortcomings, be an important step toward mending this rift? Only time will tell.The writer is vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.