Israel’s next big civil conflict: exempting Haredi men from the military draft

The religious parties have proposed a bill that would lower the age at which ultra-Orthodox men can be exempted. The issue is deeply divisive.

The Knesset and the government came back to work this week after a four-week spring recess. Having put the judicial overhaul on hold, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have hoped that the unrest sweeping the country might also be put on hold. But the ongoing dissent and protest movement is actually likely to intensify.

Legislative attention will be initially focused on the budget. According to law, if the government doesn’t pass a new budget by May 29, the Knesset is automatically dissolved and the country will, yet again, be sent to elections. The government thus has a month to get through the complicated, two-year, trillion-shekel budget.  

Although each of the coalition partners has its own set of demands, including settlement expansion and funding for ultra-Orthodox education, the real hurdle facing the government is the passage of a new draft law –widely and derisively referred to as a new “How to Avoid-the-Draft-Law”. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had recently met with the party leaders and made clear the difficulties in passing the law before the approval of the budget – which the Knesset is obligated to approve by May 29.

Only 10% of the approximately 11,000 ultra-Orthodox males who turn 18 each year are conscripted.  Most of the rest declare that they are engaged in full-time Torah study and are given an annual “deferral” of conscription service until they turn 26, when they are formally exempted from the draft and are free to quit yeshiva study, if they wish, and go to work.

The proposed change would lower the age of formal exemption to 23 or in some versions of the bill, to 21.

In a bid to pressure Netanyahu, the ultra-Orthodox parties had threatened to hold the budget hostage to the passage of that law, which was part of the coalition agreement. And because they know, based on previous experience, that the Supreme Court might overrule that law, they are also demanding passage of the override law, so that the Court will not be able to intervene.

Although the Ultra-Orthodox parties agreed on Sunday to postpone passing of a military draft law until the next Knesset session, allowing the government to focus on the budget, the issue has only been kicked down the road – and will not be going away.

The question of military service for ultra-Orthodox men has been plaguing Israel for decades. Over the years, there have been numerous legislative initiatives to provide blanket exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men, the last one in 2015. But in 2017, the Court ordered the government to revise the 2015 law, stating that the law was “unconstitutional, disproportionate, and harms equality.”

Since then, defence ministers have received more than a dozen extensions from the court, as the governments failed to pass that revision. During all these years, with the exception of the government headed by Naftali Bennett and then Yair Lapid, which lasted just over a year (2021-22), Netanyahu was prime minister.

Proponents of the proposal to lower the age argue that ultra-Orthodox young men would be free earlier to join the workforce.

The current extension will expire on July 31. In a last-ditch meeting on April 30 with the ultra-Orthodox factions, Netanyahu asked them to postpone their coalition agreement demands. Now that they have agreed to postpone the Draft Law, they may feel the need to up the ante on the override clause, so that future legislation cannot be challenged.  Furthermore, it also remains unclear if the government would ask for yet another extension.

Thus, the ultra-Orthodox parties are bringing the judicial overhaul right back to centre stage, alongside the explosive, contentious issue of exempting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from Israel’s mandatory conscription into the military – if not in the current Knesset session, then in the one following.

Proponents of the proposal to lower the age argue that ultra-Orthodox young men, who are anyway not enlisting in the army, would thus be free earlier to join the workforce. The Minister of Defence and the Finance Ministry are in favour of the proposal;  according to Defence officials, most plans to enlist the ultra-Orthodox have failed miserably and those few ultra-Orthodox men who do serve demand that the IDF accede to their religious demands, including strict gender segregation and female-free bases.  

Finance officials are in favour because they believe the proposal will lead to lower costs and faster GDP growth. Others cite the situation in other countries, such as the United States, where, since there is no threat of conscription, most ultra-Orthodox men do join the workforce by the age of 20-21.

But opponents note that the plan is not sustainable. Even if they do join the workforce earlier, since most ultra-Orthodox men choose to not study core subjects, such as maths and English, they can only get work in lower-paying positions, and therefore pay very little taxes and will continue to require government aid. 

Moreover, by lowering the age to 21, the ultra-Orthodox men will be joining the workforce at a younger age than most of those who do serve their compulsory service and well-before the demobilised soldiers will have the opportunity to further their education and apply for better-paying jobs.

In the context of the opposition to the judicial overhaul, increasing numbers of reservists in the Israel Defense Forces, especially in elite units, have refused to serve as a form of protest. The IDF fears that this could trigger a crisis, especially in intelligence and the air force, which rely heavily on reservists.

The IDF is also concerned that the blanket exemption to the ultra-Orthodox will generate bitterness and rancour among the populations that do serve and will hurt their motivation to serve.

In response, the ultra-Orthodox, the Ministry of Defence and the IDF have come up with a “package” of proposed legislation to off-set these difficulties – although these, too, have generated serious objections.

Concerned that the court may overrule the law, and since Netanyahu has declared that the override legislation would not be adopted in its current form,  the ultra-Orthodox factions are proposing a Basic Law equating Torah studies with military service, making it harder for the court to strike down the law based on inequality.

In order to ensure higher-paying salaries, the ultra-Orthodox factions have proposed legislation, which has already passed a preliminary reading and is now in committee, to apply a particular form of what they refer to as “affirmative action.”

This would compel government companies – including health organisations, the Bank of Israel, all public service, and even security-related services – to employ ultra-Orthodox men at a rate that is double their rate in the population and to waive minimal educational and professional requirements for ultra-Orthodox men in order to do so.

But opponents note that since most ultra-Orthodox men choose to not study core subjects, they can only get work in lower-paying positions, and therefore pay very little taxes and will continue to require government aid.

That is, in considering two candidates, one ultra-Orthodox and one not, a public place of work would be compelled to hire the ultra-Orthodox man, even if the other candidate, male or female, had better qualifications. Furthermore, this stipulation will also apply to local municipal councils. 

Thus, notes Gilad Malach from the Israel Democracy Institute, in a city like Haifa, where the ultra-Orthodox make up only 16% of the public, the municipality would be required to employ 32 percent ultra-Orthodox, thus creating a workforce that does not represent the social make-up of the city it is meant to serve.

To counter  public opposition, the Minister of Defence and the IDF have come up with what they refer to as a “revolutionary” arrangement –  cynically known as  “you serve, you get something in return”. In addition to significantly raising the conscripts’ basic salary, the military will offer differential remuneration.

The more significant the service – which, in military parlance, refers to elite combat units or high-level technological and defence units – the higher the pay, including not only while in service, which will be longer than for other recruits, but also after discharge, including academic studies and purchase of an apartment.

“That’s hush money,” fumes Shuki Friedman from the Jewish People Planning Institute. “The non-ultra-Orthodox will serve, while their sense of injustice and of unequal treatment will be numbed by government money.

The IDF has maintained an ethic of a people’s army, even though less than half of the eligible population actually serves in the military and large segments of society – from Arab citizens to religious women – are legally exempt from service. An even smaller proportion of the population shows up for reserve duty on a regular basis.

But the differential remuneration will wipe out the last pretenses of a people’s army and create in its stead an army of poor people. As attractive as the higher payments may be, they will always be more attractive to soldiers from poorer socio-economic groups, for whom the money will serve as an incentive, than to those who are better off. “This constitutes an official disavowal of the aspiration to equality,” states Friedman. “In the long term it may lead to military decline and economic collapse.”

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