The haredi draft quandary may topple the government yet

The compromises under discussion may not work in Israel’s explosive political environment.

An Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jew is being carried away by police after blocking a main road in Bnei Barak during a protest (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
An Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jew is being carried away by police after blocking a main road in Bnei Barak during a protest
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
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 the haredi political parties and their opponents in the coalition, all sides have 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 under way 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 for 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.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a protest against a law calling for members of their community to serve in the army. (Reuters)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a protest against a law calling for members of their community to serve in the army. (Reuters)
At the same time, the right of men to study unhindered in yeshiva is a sacred symbol in the haredi world and among 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 haredi men drafted into the IDF.
So the reality is that although an election was averted 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.
BUT WHILE successive governments have failed to adequately deal with this problem for political reasons, there are proposals that some experts believe would provide a solution for Israeli society, the IDF’s defense requirements and the High Court of Justice.
Although the reality in which at least one haredi party has been present in 12 out of the 16 governments since 1981 make it unlikely the next government would tackle the issue, it is nevertheless valuable to see what, in an ideal world, could be done to resolve this most intractable of problems.
It is also worthwhile to evaluate how efforts thus far to draft haredi men into military service have fared.
Why did the utra-Orthodox avoid elections by backtracking on enlistment?
The number of haredim conscripted 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, the conscription rate has steadily risen, to a rate of about a third of the annual haredi cohort of men reaching 18.
Targets for military conscription established under the law passed at the behest of Yesh Atid in the previous government in 2014 have not been totally met, but have not been missed by much.
The target for the military conscription year July 2016 to June 2017 was 3,200, with 2,850 haredi men actually drafted, missing the target by approximately 11%.
In 2015/2016, the target was 2,700, with 2,475 conscripted, and in 2014/2015 the target was 2,300, with 2,203 conscripted.
So the number of haredim conscripted has been rising year-over-year.
That said, the gap between the target and the actual number of draftees has been growing.
And this is to say nothing of the concerns that large numbers of those who are conscripted to haredi tracks in the IDF might not actually be haredi.
The previous legislation defined a haredi as someone who studied for at least two years between the ages of 14 and 18 in haredi educational institutions.
Police arrest a haredi man protesting against the drafting of ultra-Orthodox into the IDF, October 2017 (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Police arrest a haredi man protesting against the drafting of ultra-Orthodox into the IDF, October 2017 (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
But critics have argued that this definition is so broad that it includes men from the margins of the haredi community in the IDF’s numbers, while those in the mainstream continue to avoid service, meaning the ideological barrier to haredi military conscription is not overcome.
It also leaves open the possibility for youths no longer haredi or even religious at all to join such programs and inflate the IDF’s numbers.
Another important component of the previous legislation for haredi conscription, 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 draftees can work in fields such as healthcare, 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 workforce, 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.
Substantial foundations have however been laid which could be built upon, under the right circumstances, to bring conscription up to levels that would be able to satisfy both the state’s security requirements and the High Court of Justice’s demands for equality, or at least a semblance thereof.
ONE PRINCIPLE that 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 advocacy group has long lobbied for the drafting of haredi men into military service, but has argued against legislative attempts to impose conscription and make draft dodgers liable to imprisonment.
Hiddush director Rabbi Uri Regev says that the organization is 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 in 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.
He points to polls that demonstrate high public support for this principle.
Hiddush therefore proposes that 1,400 haredi men every year be given military service exemptions based on objective criteria of excellence, be 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 whomever it wants from the remaining pool of eligible haredi men, and those who are not wanted could enlist to the civilian service program.
In order to induce higher rates of conscription, economic and civil sanctions would be imposed on those avoiding the draft, such as revoking the stipend that the state pays to yeshiva students and the funding provided to yeshivot.
In addition, the kind of sanctions imposed on husbands who deny their wives a divorce, such as revoking their driver’s 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.”
Police disperse an ultra-Orthodox anti-conscription rally in Jerusalem on March 8, 2018. (POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Police disperse an ultra-Orthodox anti-conscription rally in Jerusalem on March 8, 2018. (POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
PROF. YEDIDYA STERN, a vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute and someone who has advised the government on haredi draft efforts, is of the same mind that no effective measures should be taken to forcibly draft haredi men into the army on pain of imprisonment for refusing to serve.
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.
First, 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 High Court’s demand for equality.
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 suited only to about a third of haredi men.
Some haredi educators have themselves said that only onethird 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 only a third of the community pursues yeshiva study full time, he says.
Critically, he says it is vital to allow haredi men to be drafted only when they are 22, by which age the majority are already married and may also have a child or two.
It is vital because the real opposition within the haredi leadership to military service is not on actual ideological grounds, but simply because there is a fear that haredi men will lose their 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 are conscripted, particularly if they do so at the tender age of 18.
Although drafted 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 conscription.
He also notes that of the haredi men who complete military service, some 91% have gone on to find employment afterward, meaning they would constitute a net financial gain for the state over their working lives.
In order to properly incentivize conscription, Stern says, increasing targets would be set for a fiveyear 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 yeshivot and yeshiva student stipends would be enacted.
And should the targets not be met for two years in a row, the budget cuts for yeshivot 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 its 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.
First, the conscription age of 22 would nullify to some extent the concern that haredi men would leave the community, and second 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 could 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 as the possibility is that a reasonable solution to this complex problem can be enacted, it should at least behoove the country’s political leadership to study and understand the available solutions that could extricate us from this quandary.