A wrongheaded change on IDF exemptions for haredim

A secretive cabinet proposal circumvents Tal Law.

Haredim in hard hats 311 (photo credit: Dan Morgan)
Haredim in hard hats 311
(photo credit: Dan Morgan)
A little over two weeks ago, the cabinet quietly circumvented the controversial Tal Law to provide a sweeping exemption from military service for yeshiva students who reach age 22. Under the proposal, yeshiva students aged 22 and over who want to get out of the study hall and into the labor market will be allowed to perform one year of mandatory national service instead of enlisting in the IDF.
The change is highly significant. Until now, under a complicated arrangement that first became law in July 2002 and was extended for another five years in 2007, only married yeshiva students with families or those aged 26 could automatically opt for national service, which invariably is performed within the haredi community. All the rest were obligated to enlist in the IDF for abbreviated service, if deemed to be fit for it by the IDF.
Legislators held no public discussion over the change, which effectively does away with the IDF’s right of first refusal to draft potentially talented yeshiva students. In fact, the change is being structured as a bureaucratic expansion of the defense minister’s authority to grant exemptions, rather than as a legislative proposal, which would have required Knesset passage.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz was the driving force behind the move, which, it is hoped, will streamline the transition of yeshiva students into the job market.
Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer had warned last month that the high rates of haredi unemployment are “unsustainable.” According to the latest figures, from 2008, 65.1 percent of haredi men aged 35 to 54 do not work, which is 5.5 times higher than the OECD average, according to a recently released Taub Center report. An estimated 60% of haredi families live under the poverty line. And the haredi population’s fertility rates are three times the national average.
In coming years haredi non-employment will put an unprecedented strain on the Israeli economy. Arguably, removing any and all obstacles preventing haredim from finding gainful employment is a more pressing objective than the need to strengthen our armed forces.
HOWEVER, THERE are legitimate dissenting opinions. For instance, the IDF’s official stance is that every effort should be made to integrate yeshiva students into military service. But the IDF’s view was not adequately considered because no substantive discussion took place before adopting Steinitz’s proposal. Making it so easy for yeshiva students to opt out of the military strikes another serious blow to the age-old Zionist ideal of “the people’s army” which advocates mandatory military service for all.
The Israeli model of the people’s army, which was anchored in law in 1949, was the result of a compromise among competing alternatives. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s personal preference was for a Communist-inspired conscription of the entire labor force into a vast, all-encompassing military that could serve a centralized economy via “labor battalions” in industry and agriculture. In contrast, then chief-of-staff Yigael Yadin advocated a fully professional army. A Swiss model, based on short conscription stints, was also suggested.
In the decades that followed, the people’s army has become a centerpiece of Israeli society. Joining in the collective endeavor to defend the Jewish state is a rite of passage as well as a human clearinghouse that brings together politically, socially and culturally diverse populations which would never have made such intimate acquaintance in civilian life.
The “me generation” has challenged the legitimacy of the state demanding two or three years of military service its young people, yet the framework has remained basically intact. Until now yeshiva students have had to pay the steep price of non-employment for removing themselves from this collective endeavor. This will no longer be the case.
If the present government wishes do away with the people’s army after over six decades and replace it with something else, let it say so. But this can only happen after a serious, open debate takes place and a feasible alternative is found. Secretively issuing a blanket exemption for yeshiva students is not the way.
Ironically, the cabinet’s decision comes at a time when more haredim are being integrated into the IDF thanks to special programs tailored to the needs of the community. Many of these new IDF tracks also provide the haredi soldier with invaluable occupational training.
As long as mandatory conscription remains in place, wholesale exemption of an entire segment of society is not fair. It’s not too smart, either.