As the Battle for 'Equal Burden' in IDF Service Heats Up, Some Warn of Drafting Haredim by Force

The Knesset panel that's preparing a plan for drafting Haredim has another two weeks to formulate its recommendations, but because its participants include no ultra-Orthodox, it's hard to see its emerging plan being enforced.

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From midweek, once it was apparent that the threat of an immediate Israeli-Syrian clash had faded, the fierce public dispute over the draft budget grabbed the headlines. But over and above the budget discussions − which will witness an interesting new peak next week, when talks about how much to cut from the defense budget begin − there have also been fascinating developments in the ministerial committee on “sharing the burden” of military service.

The committee, headed by Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry ‏(Yesh Atid‏), is now entering the home stretch in its discussions. To meet its timetable, which parallels that of the budget’s passage, the panel will have to formulate its recommendations in the next two weeks.

According to the agreement that is taking shape, and which might still undergo last-minute revisions, a compromise is emerging between the original concept put forward by Yesh Atid and the ideas injected by the two other major parties in the coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu: Likud and Habayit Hayehudi. The ultra-Orthodox, who constitute the group that will be most affected by the committee, are not in the game because they are not in the coalition. In the same way that the draft budget constitutes a frontal attack on the Haredim ‏(while totally ignoring the unfair preferences enjoyed by the settlements in many spheres‏), they will also be the main victims in regard to the draft.

One can say, of course, that the Haredim have none but themselves to blame, after decades of deliberate evasion under cover of the law. Still, it’s difficult to see the state mustering the necessary political willpower to enforce the planned draft concept over time.

The new arrangement aims to set an important target date, July 1, 2016, slightly more than three years down the road. By that date, the army and the Haredi population will have to meet ambitious draft goals set by the committee. Of
approximately 8,000 Haredi men eligible for the draft in a given year, the intention is to draft about 5,000 − slightly more than half for army service and the others for national service. All of them will undergo interviews by the army, which will choose those it finds most suitable to become soldiers. Some will serve in non-army units, such as the Israel Police. At the same time, 1,800 outstanding yeshiva students will be able to continue studying as before. With regard to the other 1,200 or so, who may or may not be eligible for service in any case, the committee says in its defense that fallout also exists in the non-Haredi population. Committee members say they hope eventually to increase the number of draftees and to exceed the stated goals.

If the goals are not met by July 2016, the defense minister will be able to declare immediate universal compulsory army service, under the Defense Service Law. If that happens, Haredim will be drafted like the secular public and like members of the national-religious community. ‏(This also poses a threat to the army, however: If it is unable to absorb the Haredim, it will have to cope with a larger number of recruits than it actually needs.‏) If the goals are met, the situation will remain as is for the time being.

On the other hand, the committee has apparently backed down from imposing serious economic sanctions on Haredim for draft evasion. The argument put forward in the discussions this week is that the budget for the yeshivas has already been cut so sharply in the state budget that any additional blow would be tantamount to collective punishment. As for individual economic sanctions ‏(as opposed to collective ones against yeshivas‏), legal experts are divided about whether they could be defended in the High Court of Justice. Accordingly, the intention is to return to the channel of non-economic personal sanctions, including arrest, against Haredim who shirk the draft and do not have authorization to continue yeshiva studies. Progress has also been made in another contentious area. Habayit Hayehudi will probably agree to a significant extension of military service for students in hesder yeshivas, which combine religious studies and army service. At present, the participants in this program do only 16 months of actual army service over a period of five years.

A project that worked

There is only one person in Israel who has so far been able to organize an effective draft among Haredim with families, as part of a project that proved satisfactory to both the Israel Defense Forces and the Haredi society. Naturally, he has not been invited to tell the committee about his experience, as it deliberates on the creation of a new model. But if the Perry committee finds the time, it would do well to talk to Rabbi Ram Moshe Raved ‏(pronounced: RAH-ved‏).

Raved, a retired lieutenant colonel, does not talk to the media. His last IDF post was chief rabbi of the air force. He also coordinated Project Shahar, in which the IDF recruited thousands of Haredi men with families for technological and logistical jobs. Everyone involved describes the project as a great success, despite its high cost. ‏(A soldier in compulsory service who has a family receives a monthly package of benefits from the army worth NIS 5,000.‏)

The reason for the success is related to society’s gain: According to IDF data, some 90 percent of those who take part in Project Shahar are afterward able to find jobs in the civilian sphere that are relevant to the profession they acquired in their service. In other words, they are able to break out of the Haredi economic ghetto that was their milieu until they were drafted. Furthermore, even though the absolute majority of the project’s graduates remained part of Haredi society ‏(a crucial issue for the rabbis‏), there is no doubt that their ties with the army and with Israeli society in general changed for the better, after most of the allegations they had heard about the IDF over the years proved unfounded during their
service.

Project Shahar is radically different from the Haredi unit in the Nahal infantry brigade. Those accepted for the project were aged 22 or over if they were bachelors, and a few younger than that if married. Their compulsory service lasted 18 months, after which most of them signed on for two more years in the career army. In contrast, Nahal recruited mainly Haredim aged 18-21 without families who were no longer engaged in religious studies. For years, without saying so, the IDF also recruited men from the national-religious community for this unit if they wanted. In the past year, an effort has been made to change this; the army now says that more than 90 percent of those in the
Nahal unit are “authentic” Haredim.

Raved, despite his long service as a chaplain, describes himself as a full-fledged Haredi who entered the IDF to make a living. At first, in fact, he saw it only as a place of work − but he ended up staying for 29 years. If he were asked by the Perry committee, he would probably say that nothing will be achieved by coercion. One of the reasons for the success of Project Shahar is that it did not entail a direct clash with Haredi rabbis.

The IDF accepted the rabbis’ basic demands: that the only people drafted would be married Haredim who are not capable of continuing to study and must provide for their family; that no attempt would be made to undermine the Haredi soldiers’ religious faith; and that the project must not be part of a plan aimed at undermining the yeshiva world.

Project Shahar had its genesis in the air force, under two of its commanders in chief, Eliezer Shkedy and Ido Nehushtan. Shkedy spearheaded the project at its start, in the summer of 2007, with a few dozen Haredi recruits. A year later, air force officers were saying, “The moment a Haredi recruit enters a military base, both sides have already gained something.”

The project originally was based on yeshiva students who were no longer eligible for the arrangement under which their military service was constantly deferred, having broken some of the rules or gone abroad without permission. Raved wanted to recruit yeshiva students who were somewhat older, were married and viewed military service as a way to acquire professional skills. Accordingly, the air force upgraded the quality of the jobs given to participants in Project Shahar, assigning them more complex tasks, such as programming or software testing. The air force decided to absorb the new recruits based on potential ability, not on their prior, limited professional knowledge. The intention − which was fulfilled − was to close the knowledge gaps during the training
period.

The air force promised the rabbis that the Haredim would receive strictly kosher food, would have a daily 45-minute Torah lesson, and would be segregated from women in the rooms in which they did their service, though not in the unit as such. Shkedy had to intervene a number of times during the first stages, such as when the army intended to force the Haredim to do a programmers’ course jointly with women. Within four years, some 2,000 Haredim had gone through Project Shahar, and similar projects were inaugurated in the Intelligence Corps, the Teleprocessing Corps and the Israel Navy. Raved was asked to coordinate the entire project − in addition to his work as chief rabbi of the air force.

Subsequently, though, there were some hitches, and participants in the project complained that the IDF was not fulfilling some of its promises. Not all the food was properly kosher, Torah lessons did not always take place − and most problematic: In some cases Haredim were assigned to serve together with female soldiers. In addition, soldiers from the national-religious movement finagled their way into some of the programs, notably in Military Intelligence, and obtained the same far-reaching benefits as their Haredi colleagues, without there being a genuine need to supplement their technological background, as was the case with the Haredim.

This development, which was at odds with the original purpose of the project, seems to have stemmed mainly from laziness: The army found it difficult to enforce its own conditions. It was only after a report on the subject appeared in Haaretz, about a year ago, that the Personnel Directorate restored order to the project in Military Intelligence and ensured that only Haredim were accepted.

At the same time, some of the commanding officers also found cause to be upset with their Haredi soldiers. The Shahar men did not sleep on the bases and were not part of the duty roster. Some officers claimed they were not really soldiers. Raved, whom the Haredim viewed as their representative, was worried about what he described at the time as a creeping reduction in the military’s commitments, and alerted his superiors to these developments.

In 2011, the Personnel Directorate set up a committee, of which Raved was a member, to formulate rules that would enable the continued service of Haredim in Project Shahar. The program that ensued was not to Raved’s liking. The main stumbling block was the issue of joint service with women, and in particular activity outside the unit. Raved announced his resignation from the project in January 2012. ‏(Contrary to reports at the time, this was unrelated to the furor over the army’s decision to refuse to allow religiously observant soldiers to leave ceremonies in which women sang.‏) In a letter to the soldiers in the project and to Haredi rabbis, Raved said he could no longer guarantee that the rules previously agreed upon would be maintained. Eight months later, he also resigned from the IDF, having completed his term as chief rabbi of the air force.

The current coordinator of Project Shahar is Maj. Shimshon Klein. Rabbi Klein, who is not ultra-Orthodox but rather from the national-religious movement, is the son-in-law of Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger. In the meantime, the rise in the number of Shahar participants has stalled, and there are complaints that some of the new recruits are of a slightly lower quality than in the past.

If the Perry committee were to ask Raved, he would undoubtedly tell them that large numbers of Haredim can be drafted, but that this must be done by consent and not by coercion. Moreover, he would add, the coordinator of the project should be a Haredi officer.

The establishment of the new government without Haredim, and the declarations by senior figures in Yesh Atid that they intend to enforce “equality of the burden” and draft most yeshiva students, have had the effect of transforming the debate into an ideological struggle in which no prisoners are taken. Raved believes that once ideology enters the picture, nothing will help. The IDF, he believes, will fail if it tries to draft yeshiva students by force and the only ones who agree to serve will be no-account young people from the margins of Haredi society.

End of basic training of the Nahal brigade's Netza Yehuda battalion at Masada 2012Credit: Alex Levac
Rabbi Raved. If asked by the Perry committee, he'd probably say that nothing will be achived by coercion.Credit: IDF Spokesman's Office
A Nahal Haredi soldier. A main stumbling block has been the issue of joint army service with women.Credit: Alex Levac

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