Yedidia Z. Stern
Yedidia Z. Stern
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The (non-)draft law for Haredim

Lowering the draft age for the ultra-Orthodox to let them leave the army at the usual age sounds like a good idea, but it might just bring down this people's army
Ultra-Orthodox men walk outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2019. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men walk outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2019. (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)

Amazingly, the IDF Draft Law the government is trying to get passed in the Knesset has been swallowed whole by the Israeli public – without choking or even clearing its throat. Past attempts to enact conscription laws have toppled governments, caused political parties to form and disband, and driven hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets. The High Court of Justice has deployed its doomsday weapon – the nullification of Knesset laws – on this issue more than any other. Yet now there is wall-to-wall silence.

The Haredim are silent, even though the legislative effort is led by Liberman and Lapid, who are perceived as hostile to them, and even though the proposed law sets annual conscription targets backed up by economic sanctions in the event of non-compliance. At the same time, the “sharing the burden” camp is also silent, even though the bill dramatically lowers the exemption age — by three years! — so that yeshiva students could return to civilian life at age 21, the age when other young Israelis return their uniforms to the IDF’s Bakum processing center.

On its face, the current silence is a positive expression of compromise: the Haredim understand the limits of power and are willing to accept the targets and sanctions — so long as the principle of not forcing Haredim to be drafted against their will is maintained. Here, they say, even Liberman and Lapid accept the principle of Torato umanuto (Torah study is his main occupation). The “sharing the burden” proponents, for their part, having despaired of their primary objective, decided to make do with the Haredim joining the labor force at a young age. For them, lowering the exemption age is a smart move — removing the barrier to Haredi employment, even if unfairly perpetuating the burden inequality. 

Although in my view, a compromise on the conscription issue is necessary, the one currently proposed is flawed and should be rejected.

First, the intended annual increase in the number of Haredi conscripts is only about 130, and the total number envisioned four years from now is 2,100 (out of 11,000 Haredi males in the annual birth registry). This makes a mockery of the whole idea of Haredi service. Lowering the target numbers would likely result in the sanctions not being implemented, and even if they were, it would only happen in two years. The chances of the law being changed by then are high. It is understandable, then, why the Haredim are not worried.

Second, lowering the exemption age is meant to increase the number of Haredim entering the work force at a young age. This is an important and worthy goal. According to the most optimistic forecasts that can be derived from Bank of Israel and Israel Democracy Institute studies, the change would be reflected in a 10-20 percent rise in the number of employed Haredim. Great, but at what price?

I wish I were wrong, but if the proposed law is passed, it must be assumed that the dangerous process of rescinding the IDF’s status as a “people’s army” would gain significant and alarming momentum. 

A law — endorsed not only by the Israeli right, which looks askance at the Haredim, but also by the entire Israeli center and left (!) – that exempts over 80% of the Haredim from any military service obligation would transform the recognition of inequality from the status of an “after-the-fact” political constraint (one that could be changed) into an “a priori” reality. Put simply, lowering the Haredi exemption age to match the IDF discharge age would amount to the Israeli majority waving a white flag in the struggle for equitable conscription. Will our children who serve in the army accept this with equanimity? 

Already today, Haredi men constitute 16% of the annual conscription cohort, and their share will increase in the future. When a center-left government approves this massive exemption — and take heed, it is not a postponement of service, but rather a true exemption because the maximum deferral age would match the army discharge age — it undermines the legitimacy of a “compulsory draft” for the rest of the population.

The benefit of re-routing a few thousand Haredim (estimated at 3,000) to a productive life path is far smaller than the danger of dismantling Israel’s most important institution — not just for security but for social resilience — the people’s army. 

Finally, one need not be an expert jurist to know that the proposed law is far from meeting the standards set by the High Court in a series of rulings that overturned earlier conscription laws. If the High Court does not change its mind (only Justice Amit has proposed a radical solution in the direction suggested by the law), it will declare the new draft law unconstitutional and thus null and void. Although there are targets and sanctions, they are a thin soup. On the other hand, lowering the exemption age would be  an extreme escalation of the current inequality, which the High Court would not condone.

It is appropriate and also possible to reach a compromise with the Haredim, but not through a non-recruitment law whose goals are meager, whose social dangers are many, and whose legal validity is shaky.

About the Author
Yedidia Stern is president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University, who was previously a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
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