Sharing the Civil Burden in Israel

Israeli Ministers Take on Challenge of Devising Historic ultra-Orthodox Draft and Integration Plan

Ministerial committee has 45 days to draft new version of the Tal Law, filling holes left by coalition agreement on Haredi IDF draft; here are a few principles their work is based on.

The ministerial committee on drafting ultra-Orthodox, which was officially set up this week, will be undertaking some of the most critical decisions in the history of Israel over the next 45 days.

In that very short time span, the committee has to produce legislation for a new version of the Tal Law on drafting the ultra-Orthodox and integrating them into the civilian workforce.

Jacob Perry, minister of science and technology, chairs the panel, which includes Housing Minster Uri Ariel, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Defense Mister Moshe Ya’alon and Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz.

On the surface, the committee’s work doesn’t appear all that challenging because the outline of legislation was written out in the coalition agreement. But there are a lot of question marks to be addressed that will make the panel’s work critical and determine whether or not the historic change goes smoothly or not.

Under the coalition agreement, army service for all is ultimately to be reduced to two years. The number of Haredi men aged 18 to 21 liable for army service is supposed to grow each year with only 1,800 yeshiva students eligible annually for an exemption. All the others who refuse to serve are to be penalized financially, along with their yeshivas.

Holes in agreement

The agreement, however, doesn’t specify how the IDF will choose the 1,800 yeshiva students enjoying an exemption. Nor does it say what those financial penalties will be. Intentionally or not, these and other holes in the agreement will give birth to endless interpretations.

The work of sorting out the details and contradictions began a few weeks ago by MK Ofer Shelach, the Knesset faction leader of Yesh Atid, which is leading the universal service drive. He and Perry have been working with government and private bodies, as well as with Haredi leaders.

Some of the principles on which their work is based:

1. Drafting the Haredim is critical to bringing them into the labor market. Without army service, they will struggle to find work. In the current situation, the secular population rejects them because they refuse to do service, while the ultra-Orthodox both reject and fear the secular world. Of the 1,000 avrechim ‏(married yeshiva students‏) who were given army exemption 18 months ago, only about 10% have left the yeshiva for a job.

Army service aims to end the mutual hostility and fears by creating a common area where the Haredi and secular Israelis can meet. In addition, the IDF is highly capable of providing the training that young Haredim need to find employment,.

2. The draft cannot be implemented by force. The government will continue to give young Haredim the choice of army service or continuing their studies. By doing so, the committee aims to mitigate Haredi fears of secular coercion and the destruction of the yeshiva world. There will be no reduction in aid to the yeshivas, which amounts to NIS 1 billion annually.

3. The Haredim themselves have no desire to change the status quo, even if that consigns many of them to a life of poverty. The fact is that social factors push them into remaining in the yeshiva while government allowances enable them to sustain themselves.

However, opposition to army service isn’t a firm principle. There is no objection to it in halacha ‏(Jewish law‏). Rather, the rabbis are concerned that allowing unmarried young men to serve in the army will expose them to the secular world and cause them to leave the ultra-Orthodox community. They do not want yeshiva students to be drafted before they reach age 21 or 22.

Carrots and sticks

4. The best way to give Haredim the incentive to serve in the army is through financial means. The idea is to create an environment where remaining in the yeshiva simply isn’t financially feasible for most Haredi men. Thus, the failure to answer a call-up order will mean a reduction in the aid given to the young man’s yeshiva. That will give the institution itself a good reason to encourage him to go into the army.

The current system enables a Haredi family to survive without anyone working, even if that means they live a life of poverty.

Therefore, the Finance Ministry has plans to add more sticks and carrots by reducing child allowances while granting a discount on municipal taxes, National Insurance and daycare to those who enter the job market. The army will offer the carrot of special grants for avrechim in the service.

5. Army service will only begin after the inductee is married, meaning over age 21. One proposal is that they be drafted six months after they are married, before the first children arrive and the army has to pay the solider extra. Another posits that there is no way to draft Haredim before age 22, when they already have children, but the extra costs should be looked on as an investment because the man will eventually get work and contribute to the economy. The economy loses some NIS 8 billion annually from the absence of Haredi men in the workforce.

6. Some of the proposals look at army and national civilian service as equally desirable. But others see civilian service as a bluff rather than a segue into the job market for Haredim because it won’t provide any training or expose them to the outside world.

7. Some of the proposals call for strict supervision of the yeshivas to ensure they are complying with the policy of universal service. Even today, estimates are that only a quarter of Haredi men study full-time. Supervision would be done through biometric identification and treating those who falsely declare that they are full-time students as having gone AWOL.

Aaron Steinmetz