Knesset panel: Fines preferable to prison for yeshiva students who refuse to serve in IDF

Current law stipulates up to two years imprisonment for anyone who refuses to serve.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The option of imposing criminal sanctions on yeshiva students who refuse to perform national service seems to be losing support on the Knesset’s special committee on haredi enlistment.
At a hearing the committee held on Tuesday, it emerged that most members are now more inclined to impose economic sanctions against haredi men refusing to serve, out of concern that criminal measures and the threat of imprisonment would be ineffective and divisive.
The government bill drawn up by the Peri Committee earlier this year proposed that a yeshiva student refusing to enlist would be subject to the current terms of the Law of the Security Services, which stipulates up to two years’ imprisonment for anyone who refuses to serve.
However, Prof. Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University, a renowned expert in the field of sociology and haredi society, said at Tuesday’s hearing that it would be “problematic” to criminalize people whose motives for not wanting to enlist were ideological.
“We do not want to create prison camps for people who do not want to fulfill a [particular] law,” the professor said.
“It won’t help and will generate much greater opposition.”
Shahar Ilan, the deputy director of religious freedom lobby group Hiddush, concurred, stating that it would not be workable to imprison yeshiva students who didn’t want to serve.
“Does anyone think that in the Jewish state, thousands of yeshiva students will be taken off to jail?” he asked. “Criminal sanctions will make a mockery of the legislative system.”
Hiddush has worked extensively to draft haredim into national service, Ilan pointed out, but he said that “criminal sanctions will blow everything up in our faces in four years’ time,” when the proposed law becomes fully operative.
At the beginning of the session, committee chairwoman Ayelet Shaked informed the panel that despite previous evaluations, it would be legally feasible to impose economic sanctions as a form of negative incentive for yeshiva students refusing to serve.
Shaked noted that benefits such as state assistance for rent payments and mortgages, as well as other forms of state subsidized housing, municipal tax discounts, and stipends to yeshiva students could all be revoked for anyone who declined to perform national service.
“The goal of all the members of the committee is that in the end, the largest possible number of haredim will enlist and [subsequently] join the work force,” Shaked said.
“The question is how to do this,” she continued. “What’s the point of passing a law if we know it can’t be enforced? We all know that if we impose criminal sanctions, no one is going to send the military police into Bnei Brak or Jerusalem.”
Prof. Yedidia Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute also spoke out against criminal sanctions, and reiterated his position that such measures would not be implemented and would lead to deep societal divisions.
“People waving about the notion of [national service] equality will get not the desired results, but instead a split in Israeli society,” he argued. “We can’t take up a weapon which is impossible to use.”
Despite the numerous voices on the committee expressing opposition to criminal sanctions, committee member and Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah continued to insist that such measures were the only way to ensure the continuation of a “national army.”
“Changing the bill by replacing criminal sanctions with financial ones would totally undermine the notion of a national army and service for all,” he claimed.
The issue of haredi enlistment was one of the main stumbling blocks to the establishment of the government coalition earlier this year.
At the time, it was agreed in coalition negotiations that economic and not criminal sanctions would form the basis of incentives to increase haredi enlistment in national service programs.
However, during deliberations in the ministerial committee led by Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, legal advisers to the panel said it would be legally problematic to revoke state benefits granted to other citizens.
Former justice minister Prof. Daniel Friedmann, who was present at Tuesday’s committee hearing, said that the state could circumvent such legal problems by making the proposed financial sanctions applicable to all Israeli citizens.
He added that the Knesset, as the sovereign power within Israel, could resolve any further legal difficulties by amending the necessary Basic Laws of the state, if it so wished.
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni once again spoke out fiercely against criminal sanctions and again noted subtly that if economic sanctions were stipulated instead, the process of integrating haredi men into national service programs would be easier.
“If you define yeshiva students who don’t enlist as criminals, then I will call on everyone not to enlist,” the MK declared.
“If you want haredim to serve, don’t impose criminal sanctions,” he continued, arguing that insisting on criminalization would undo the progress made since 2007, when implementation of the Tal Law’s provisions began.
Haredi enlistment in IDF and civilian service in 2011 amounted to 28 percent of the eligible haredi men for that year.