Israel faces many threats. Hezbollah in the North, Hamas in the South and Iran’s nuclear aspirations and increasingly menacing presence throughout the region are just a few examples of dangers that Israel’s leaders must contend with.
Yet it is the confounding issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription that might be the most pressing threat of them all. It is this issue that was the impetus for the two rounds of 2019’s elections. It’s thrown us into a near-existential crisis that threatens the country’s long-term security and economic vitality.
If left unresolved, it could place the Jewish state in danger of becoming less secure, less prosperous and losing its cherished status as an island of stability in a tumultuous region.
Facing overwhelming numerical superiority on the battlefield, from the moment of its establishment in 1948, tiny Israel had no choice but to build a strong military powered by universal conscription. But for a young country struggling to integrate an immigrant population, the Israel Defense Forces played an additional role – a melting pot that forged the new Israeli society out of a myriad of cultures and ethnicities.
This is the second reason why Israel’s founders instituted a mandatory draft for all 18-year-olds. From the outset, there were two primary exceptions to this rule: the Jewish state’s Arab citizens, who were exempted to avoid potential conflicts of interest resulting from their ethnic and national ties to the countries at war with Israel, and the country’s then small ultra-Orthodox community.
The exemption for the ultra-Orthodox seemed innocent at the time. Just years after the community’s almost complete extermination during the Holocaust, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, felt that it was his historic duty to preserve what was left of this near-extinct way of life and ensure the existence of future Torah scholars. This led him to approve an exemption for 400 yeshiva students. However, the number of exemptions for yeshiva students grew every year. By the late 1960s, it stood at 4,700. By the mid-1980s, it had ballooned to 16,000 students a year. And by the mid-1990s, more than 25,000 young men annually were discharged without serving a day in the military.
As the number of exemptions grew, so did resentment in the rest of Israeli society. A number of petitions were submitted to the Supreme Court and in 1998, the Court ruled that the Defense Ministry did not have the authority to grant these exemptions and that a law must be passed to regulate this contentious issue. At that point, then-prime minister Ehud Barak legislated a new law that authorized the IDF to grant exemptions to full-time yeshiva students.
This produced an absurd situation, whereby the haredim simultaneously avoided the draft and were barred from the workforce. In 2012, the Court ruled that Barak’s law was unconstitutional and discriminatory to those who serve.
The governing coalition formed in 2013 left the haredi parties in the parliamentary opposition, providing the basis for the last serious attempt to untie this Gordian knot. A new law was passed that included, for the first time, quotas and multi-year targets for ultra-Orthodox recruitment. While the law still allowed for the complete exemption of Talmudic “geniuses,” it still set a target of 8,000 recruits a year, of which 3,800 would actually serve in the IDF, while the rest performed civilian national service.
But the haredi parties rejoined the coalition following the 2015 elections, and soon succeeded in gutting the law of any serious sanctions against those who did not comply, while at the same time, delaying its implementation. As a result, the Supreme Court struck down the new arrangement as well.
Now, a state of limbo exists as Israelis await new elections with the knowledge that the very issue that brought us both rounds of early elections remains unresolved. Israel’s leadership must soon make a decision on this explosive issue. Ignoring it, as the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset would prefer, is no longer possible. Some opponents of the status quo argue that the government must crack down and apply the existing law equally to all segments of the population. While this may seem like the solution most consonant with the principle of equality, it is unfeasible. It is hard to envision a situation in which the military police barges into the religious seminaries and marches the delinquent students off to their military service.
But there is another way. Our research at the Israel Democracy Institute shows that two new policies can make a real difference. First, Israel must lower the age when yeshiva students are allowed to leave their seminaries and join the workforce from the current 24 to 21. This would allow most of these men, who are not truly Talmudic scholars, to legitimately seek employment and then contribute to Israeli society in other ways. Second, the IDF must increase the pay and other financial incentives for those who do serve, including additional benefits for combat soldiers. These two proposals would provide incentives for all Israelis, including haredi men, to serve in meaningful positions in the IDF, while ending the current farce.If Israel does not act to resolve this issue now, when it is still manageable, it will be sentencing these young men to a lifetime of unemployment and government handouts, deepening the divide within society and dooming our country to decades of low growth, low productivity, and growing gaps between rich and poor. Following September's election, the next government must enact a realistic policy that will not only bring the country a step closer to fairness and equality, but more importantly, remove the danger of this bulwark of western liberalism descending into the instability and chaos that have plagued almost every other country in the Middle East.
The writer is the president of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. He previously served as a member of Knesset from 2007 to 2013.