Israel approves temporary IDF draft exemption for haredi youth

Israel's cabinet approves a new haredi conscription plan, days before the current bill expires.

 Haredi men dressed in traditional ultra-Orthodox garb stand behind a group of religious IDF soldiers (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Haredi men dressed in traditional ultra-Orthodox garb stand behind a group of religious IDF soldiers

Israel's cabinet approved on Sunday a decision to pass a new haredi conscription bill by March 31, 2024, and to direct the IDF not to draft eligible haredi men until then – even though the current law is set to expire this Friday, June 30.

The government defined the plan as one that will include four components.

First, it will create legislation to regulate the integration of yeshiva students and graduates of haredi educational institutions into military service, national civil service, and into the workforce, with an emphasis on quality employment; and it will include "significant" expansion of benefits for mandatory and reserve soldiers which will be presented within 45 days, in order to "express gratitude for their service and in order to reduce inequality in service."

A new course for the IDF

Second is the plan's timeline: A government bill proposal will be published before the beginning of the Knesset's winter session on October 15, and will be brought to the cabinet's approval by November 10. It will pass into law by the end of the winter session, on March 31, 2024.

Third, during a so-called "interim period" between the current law's expiration on June 30 until the new law is approved, the government "directs the defense minister to direct the chief of staff" not to take steps to draft eligible haredi men, as long as they "present before the authorities approvals of their studies in a yeshiva based on the needs and demands of the army."

 ORTHODOX SOLDIERS participate in an IDF swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
ORTHODOX SOLDIERS participate in an IDF swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Fourth, to direct the national missions minister, who is responsible for national civil service, to propose a new government-sponsored bill to enable haredim to join civil service during the "interim period."

Dispute over constitutionality 

The existing law, which passed in 2014 and was amended in 2015, sets allotments of haredi draftees to the IDF per year and sanctions yeshivot that do not meet these allotments. In September 2017, the Supreme Court deemed the bill unconstitutional, since the exemption it gave was ruled to be too sweeping and thus violated the notion of equality. The court initially gave the Knesset a year to amend the bill, but this was delayed 15 times due to the recurring elections since then. The current extension lasts until July 31.

However, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel (MQG) pointed out in a motion to the Supreme Court earlier this month that the law itself – not the Supreme Court ruling to strike it down – says explicitly that it applies until June 30, 2023. Therefore, the IDF must by law begin the process of drafting eligible haredim on July 1, the MQG argued in its motion.

MQG argued on Sunday that the government's decision was illegal.

The paradoxical rise of haredi conscripts 

In a letter addressed to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the entire Israeli government, MQG wrote that "an unequal and unconstitutional draft arrangement cannot be ordered by a government decision." The government "must enact an arrangement regarding the draft in law, as they have given undertakings to do so to the Supreme Court over the past six years," MQG added.

"Due to the fact that they chose not to enact a new draft law, the current one will expire on 30 June 2023, and the only legal option they have as of this time is to recruit yeshiva students in the same way as all other Israeli citizens," the movement added.

Hidday Negev, head of the MQG's policy and legislation department, said in a statement, "We can only regret the state's foot-dragging on drafting yeshiva students, which has brought us to the point when it is clear that the validity of the arrangement to defer the draft will expire.

"We regret that the minister of defense and the government are seeking to implement a decision in direct contravention of the Defense Service Law. Any decision on not drafting haredim will be made without authority and will be a criminal decision," Negev added.

Defense ministry legal advisor Itai Ofir wrote in an accompanying legal opinion that the decision raises "weighty legal difficulties," since during the interim period, non-haredi conscripts will continue to be called up, while haredim will not, without a basis anchored in law. This could raise difficulties regarding the "concern for damage to motivation to serve and social cohesiveness stemming from the damage to equality."

However, Ofir opined that the decision was still legal due to a number of factors, chiefly among them a separate clause in Israel's Conscription Law that gives the IDF 12 months to draft conscripts who have delayed their service but for whom the delay has ended. This would apply to haredim whose deferment due to studies in a yeshiva would expire during the interim period, Ofir reasoned.

In 2012 the government faced a similar situation when a former conscription bill expired – and the government indeed began to send conscription notices to eligible yeshiva students. This led to a rise in haredi students joining the IDF, according to MQG.

MGQ thus pointed out in its motion earlier this month that paradoxically, the former law's expiration in 2012 is what actually led to the desired result – an increase of haredi conscripts – and therefore, a similar result could occur beginning on July 1.

According to the coalition agreements between the Likud and United Torah Judaism signed in late December, a new conscription bill was supposed to pass by the time the budget passed in late May. However, due to short timetables the haredi parties agreed to drop the demand.

Prior to the haredi agreement to drop the demand, Netanyahu, Gallant and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich held a series of meetings in late April in order to come up with a version of a new law.

According to reports from those meetings, the general idea of the new law proposal was to enact a new policy of choosing equality in the “economic burden” over the “military burden” by lowering the exemption age for haredi men from 26 to between 21-23, thus enabling them to join the workforce earlier, while minimizing the inequality to soldiers by shortening the length of service and providing benefits for those who do serve.