Yohanan Plesner

A missed historic opportunity: The Haredi military exemption law

This government is rehashing a weak proposal that was meant to be temporary and drawn up before the war changed everything
Ultra-Orthodox Jews outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

How often have you wished you could go back in history and correct a terrible mistake from the past? The government of Israel has been given just such an opportunity. Indeed, following the expiry of a temporary arrangement allowing for the exemption of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military service, the government now has the chance to address an issue that threatens the future of the state of Israel, no less. Now, it appears our leadership is choosing to pass up this opportunity.

The Exemption Law recently proposed by the government was already put forward by the previous government two years ago. Back then, even though the government stated that its proposal was only an interim step toward a broader new draft law, we pointed out the problems with the bill: It renounced the principle of mandatory service for all, set low conscription targets, imposed ineffective penalties for draft dodgers, and came up with shortened, insignificant, and unequal military service tracks. Under the circumstances at the time, the only positive aspect of the proposal was that it lowered the exemption age to 21, and even then, only for a two-year period. The previous government fell, and the progress of the bill was blocked. 

And now, as if nothing had happened since then, with no acknowledgment of the fact that one of the most terrible wars in our history has broken out, the current government is trying to advance the very same bill. Even if we put aside the cynicism of vehemently opposing a bill when you’re in the opposition, and then submitting it anew when you’re in the coalition, why would our leaders simply ignore the fact that the country is at war and has vastly different military needs than it did years ago? 

The defense establishment has made it clear that what it needs now more than ever are new recruits able to fill the ranks of the IDF’s combat units that are fighting our enemies on multiple fronts. A large majority of Israeli public opinion supports the conscription of Haredim to the IDF. These Israelis who serve are demanding that the Haredim join them in sharing the burden of defending their country. It is heartening to see some signs of positive change within ultra-Orthodox society, but we do not yet see a real willingness to engage in the type of social solidarity that is necessary to grapple with the challenges Israel is facing.

Soldiers in Gaza and on the northern border are now returning for a second – and for some, even third – round of reserve service. If the IDF had more soldiers, reserve service could be significantly reduced. In fact, if Haredim were to serve at the same rate as their non-Haredi Jewish counterparts, there would no longer be a need for tactical reserve duty. 

And yet, how many Haredi soldiers would be added to the ranks of the IDF during the first year if the present bill is passed into law? Three hundred, and this number is even less significant given that some of these would serve for only three weeks. And the following year? Under the proposed law the number of Haredim subject to mandatory conscription would increase, but, relative to population growth, the rate of growth in the number of Haredim to enlist would fall. Why? Because the government is more focused on maintaining its coalition than on meeting the needs of the military. This is dangerously disconnected from reality.

As for the penalties against draft dodgers, it’s reasonable to assume that nothing will change without setting and enforcing penalties. If 1,500 killed and more than seven months of war have not prompted the Haredim to enlist, we cannot expect that they will do so of their own volition. Conscription must be mandatory for every young man, and refusing to enlist must incur a significant cost to each individual. But according to the government’s bill? If passed, the first penalties might be imposed in 2027, and even then, they will be insubstantial and easy to bypass.

In recent months, I’ve heard some far-reaching proposals: If the ultra-Orthodox don’t serve, we should revoke their right to vote, their driver’s licenses, their ability to travel abroad. The constitutionality of some of these proposals is highly questionable. The real focus needs to be on withdrawing financial benefits and exacting a significant cost on every young Haredi male who refuses to enlist. 

The government’s current proposal has led to immense frustration among the majority of Israelis. This understandable frustration is bound to lead to action as Israelis who valiantly serve their country will no longer stand for continued, institutionalized discrimination under the law.

The government and the coalition have been given a second chance – one which has come at a heavy price of blood and suffering – to turn this crisis into an opportunity and set the foundations for a new social covenant among Israelis. If our leaders continue down their current path, they will sadly miss their chance once again, and we will all pay the price for this folly.

About the Author
Yohanan Plesner is the President of the Israel Democracy Institute. He served as a Member of Knesset for the Kadima party from 2007–2013. He lives in Hod HaSharon with his wife and four daughters.