An Israeli committee tasked with drafting legislation to increase ultra-Orthodox participation in military service on Thursday submitted a report on laws meant to promote and ease religious conscription.
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The Perry Committee's task is to equalize the burden of military service in Israel, where both men and women face mandatory conscription yet a large number of the country's most religious sector are able to avoid the draft.
The government ministers will vote Sunday on the issue, including potential amendments to the security service law, the implementation of a new civilian service law and an accompanying government resolution to complete the legislative process on the issue.
The proposed new law obligates every Jewish 17-year-old male to undergo registration and examination procedures upon receiving the first call-up order, and provides for the establishment of an Israel Defense Forces intake center for the ultra-Orthodox. At the same time, religious men can opt for a yearly “postponement for purposes of Torah learning” until they are 21.
Postponement of service will require at least 45 weekly hours of learning at a yeshiva and vocational training under the auspices of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. After that, the yeshiva learner will be required to report for duty under the Military Service law. At that time the Israel Defense Forces will decide whether to conscript him for military service or to transfer him to a civilian service framework.
The law also sets annual conscription targets for the number of ultra-Orthodox who will enter military or civilian service: Two thousand ultra-Orthodox men in uniform and another 1,300 in civilian service this year, and next year an increase of 300 in the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripted into the IDF and 1,500 in the civilian service.
In 2015 the target for conscription to the IDF will stand at 2,700 and 1,800 in civilian service, while in 2016 there will be 3,200 ultra-Orthodox military conscripts and about 2,000 in civilian service. Under the outline submitted to the government, the targets for conscription to the IDF were supposed to have been higher: Twenty-five thousand as soon as next year and 3,000 ultra-Orthodox soldiers in 2015.
The total number of ultra-Orthodox serving in both the IDF and civilian service has not decreased. Instead, the Perry committee has increased the conscription target for civilian service and it has also set a conscription target of 6,000 Arab-Israeli citizens for civilian service by 2018.
As long as the yeshivas provide the required number of conscripts, the defense minister will continue to set “conscription targets” each year, on condition that the number of ultra-Orthodox conscriptees increases every year. If the stipulated number of ultra-Orthodox are not conscripted, then the exemption from service for “Torah geniuses” will be permanently limited to 1,800 yeshiva students. The defense minister will be the one to determine who will receive a full exemption from service but he will continue to base his decisions on a list provided by the yeshiva heads.
During the entire transition period into the new law, until 2016 and beyond, anyone who does not report for conscription will face criminal penalties as well as a potential fine. It has also been determined that the budget for the yeshivas will be cut if they do not comply with the conscription targets; a yeshiva learner who does not report after his first call-up notice will be defined as a draft-dodger and the yeshiva will not receive funding for him, while yeshivas with a high enlistment percentage will receive an economic incentive.
The draft of the law also contains a message for some of the soldiers serving in the IDF at present: According to the committee paper submitted to the government secretariat, the reduction in compulsory service for men will go into effect in July of 2015. However, at the same time service for women will be extended to 28 months.
A source in the Perry committee has confirmed that this move comes at the army’s request.
The rabbi responds
Rabbi Uri Regev, president and CEO of the non-profit Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel, had this to say on Thursday in response: “The Perry committee report is an historic miss; if it is implemented it will be a cause for regret for many years to come. This is not equality of the burden but rather an exercise in self-deception.”
According to Regev, the law is not nearly specific or far-reaching enough.
"The committee is setting non-obligatory targets rather than obligatory conscription quotas," he said, offering a full exemption to 28,000 yeshiva learners and postponing the service for four years, perhaps until the next government’s term in office, so that there is a large chance it won’t happen at all."
Regev added that he can't see why ultra-Orthodox are demonstrating against the Perry committee when they should, he said, be demonstrating in its favor since the legislation is so weak.
An official statement from Hiddush, however, was less critical of the committee, noting that the recommendations did well in requiring increased supervision of yeshiva learners.
“For the first time,” the statement said, “these could mean that anyone who isn’t really learning will serve.”
The Forum for Equality of the Burden issued their own scathing critique of the Perry committee's draft legislation.
“The ultra-Orthodox can grin from ear to ear – they’ve played it well. [Finance Minister] Yair Lapid is about to miss an historic opportunity," the said in a statement. "If the Lapid outline is passed, then the inequality of the burden will increase immediately. Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox who call ‘Torah their trade’ will enter the job market without having made any contribution to the state, and the people who serve in the military will immediately suffer. If these are indeed the Perry committee’s conclusions, then we will take to the streets again. We will remind Lapid of what he himself said at our demonstrations only a year ago.”