August or possibly November 2015 will most likely be a historic month. If all goes smoothly, one of those months will see an event that will be unprecedented in all of Israel’s 67-year history: the first large cohort of ultra-Orthodox soldiers will arrive at the National Induction Center at the conclusion of three years of compulsory service, in order to return their gear and get their discharge papers, just like their secular and national-religious brethren.
This year’s High Court of Justice ruling overturning the so-called Tal Law, which until now exempted ultra-Orthodox men from army service, could lead to realization of what was probably a fantasy of hundreds of thousands of Israelis for decades. The guidelines laid down by the court for the government and the Knesset are quite clear. On the assumption that the court’s directives will be honored and the principle of equality upheld, the road to drafting tens of thousands of Haredim seems to have been paved.
Except that it hasn’t been. Even though the political world is in an uproar over the subject, and drafting Haredim looms as an issue (along with evacuation of a few settler outposts in the West Bank) that could topple Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in its fourth year, and even though leaders of Zionist parties have ratcheted up their rhetoric on the question lately it seems unlikely now that this crisis will end with the mass induction of yeshiva students. Just as the Zionist (that is, secular and national-religious) side sounds determined to root out the inequality this time, so too the Haredi side remains committed to defend what it achieved over the course of a generation.
Given the impressive political dexterity that the Haredi rabbis are displaying, not even the most devoted activists in the “suckers’ encampment” that is, the protest site established by reservists a week ago near the Knesset, in support of drafting Haredim have any illusions that this battle will end with a knockout by the silent majority.
As Yossi Verter explained in these pages last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu views the dispute over Haredi army service as an “almost insoluble crisis.” That is his rather optimistic way of describing problems that are completely insoluble. In the past few weeks, he has concluded that it will be difficult for him to bridge the rift in his coalition over this issue, and that the dispute could even precipitate early elections if right-wing opposition to the removal of the houses in the Ulpana neighborhood in Beit El doesn’t make that happen earlier.
Netanyahu is trapped on all sides. The Zionist parties in his coalition including Yisrael Beiteinu, Atzmaut, Habayit Hayehudi are all publicly committed to the passage of a new law that would establish a Haredi draft. Netanyahu himself even promised a few months ago, in a meeting with reservist-activists, that Likud under his leadership would submit legislation that would be to the protesters’ liking.
That was not his approach last year. Back then, Netanyahu talked about extending the Tal Law for five more years. His view then was that the existing situation was the least of all evils, and that the recommendations of the Gabai committee (which were approved by the government), calling for a limited increase in the number of yeshiva students who would be drafted or would do national or civilian service, was the best possible achievement given the political constraints. Defense Minister Ehud Barak also said at the time that he intended to extend the Tal Law by a year.
But the High Court ruling of two months ago upset the apple cart. The justices found that the law had not achieved its declared goal since taking effect in 2002: It had a disproportionately adverse effect on equality; indeed, inequality had actually increased under the aegis of the law. The court instructed the government to find a new solution by the end of July this year.
Netanyahu is also caught in a bind from the other direction: His “natural” allies the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism are also planning to fight. Backed by the prominent Haredi rabbis, those parties’ leaders have announced that they will block a change in the status quo at any price, and will wage a battle against the coerced drafting of even one yeshiva student.
The feeling that elections are approaching makes the situation even more volatile. Even if Israel does not attack Iran this summer, that season could well mark the beginning of a period of political hell for the government. The confluence of a host of burning issues the budget, the probable renewal of the social-protest movement, the Haredi draft, the removal of settler outposts is likely to hasten announcement of new elections. In these circumstances, with each side playing to its constituency, there is little prospect that a constructive compromise on inducting ultra-Orthodox men will be worked out.
If the critical moment arrives this summer without a solution having been found, Netanyahu will be permitted to ask the president of the Supreme Court, Justice Asher Grunis, for a year’s extension, on the grounds that the draft crisis will spark new elections, and that a decision on how to proceed will have to await the creation of a new government. Another possibility being considered now involves a legal maneuver: The Tal Law would expire, but the Defense Ministry would refrain from issuing call-up notices to Haredim for a limited time, thus ensuring that yeshiva students (who for the time being still enjoy deferment of service) will not become deserters. Another option is for Netanyahu, after an election, to go counter to his natural inclination, and dissolve the historic alliance with the Haredim by forming a new government without them, as Ariel Sharon did in 2003. That would enable him to enact legislation obligating Haredim to do army service.
Even though these scenarios are seemingly just around the corner, new twists in the plot can be expected before any of them materialize.
‘Not a missionary organization’
Chief of Staff Benny Gantz was asked in an Independence Day interview appearing in Haaretz today about the Tal Law. He replied that the Israel Defense Forces was capable of absorbing more Haredi soldiers into its ranks if a new arrangement is found that takes the place of the law. Asked about the implications of the court’s decision to strike down the law and about his view of a desirable alternative, he said this was a matter for the political echelon to decide and stressed that he seeks “equality in service.”
Gantz also said expectations should not be too high regarding the immediate significance of a change in existing induction policies. “Don’t expect me to open two more elite infantry brigades tomorrow morning,” he said. “But I think we need to see how we expand the extent of [Haredi] service and open more tracks ... More alternatives can be developed.” Gantz noted that in any case, all-Haredi units should be a marginal phenomenon: “I don’t want to create an army like the one in Lebanon, with a brigade for every sect.”
The chief of staff said he has discerned a desire on the part of both ultra-Orthodox and Israeli society in general to integrate Haredim into the army and national service framework, so that they “can be part of things.” He also sought to reduce the concern of Haredim about the service of their sons: “[The IDF] is not a missionary organization. Not a single Haredi soldier will be discharged secular,” he emphasized.
According to Gantz, the optimal solution will be one that gives the IDF first priority in choosing the candidates to fill its ranks, while those whose service the army does not need will do national or civilian service. The decision about introducing a new model must be made at the political level, not by the IDF, Gantz said. “They can consult with us about how to do the things they want done,” he added.
Exemption for prodigies
In the past two years, MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) has become something of an expert on the issue of drafting yeshiva students. Plesner headed a parliamentary team that formulated recommendations for solving the problem. His work was endorsed by the High Court of Justice, whose decision on the subject is studded with quotations from the team’s recommendations. According to Plesner, the Tal Law defeated its own purpose. “The law held that it is impossible to draft all Haredim at the age of 18, and therefore preferred to promote equality by offering more options. In practice, despite the mechanism of a year of decision, which was intended to make it possible to leave the yeshiva at age 22, many of the students received a [service] exemption already during that year. A minimum number turned to the IDF or opted for national service.”
In the 10 years during which the Tal Law was in effect more than 70,000 Haredim turned 18. In the first five years, only about 2,000 of them entered the army 1,500 serving in the Haredi unit of the Nahal infantry brigade and the rest in abridged-service tracks or as kashrut supervisors.
In 2007, following additional petitions to the High Court, a directorate of civilian service was established, which offered new options to Haredim. A year later, the IDF instituted some improvements in the situation, mostly at its own initiative, by introducing special tracks for Haredim, primarily in key technological fields. The past few years saw an increase in the number of such draftees: about 3,000 in the army and 2,500 in the civilian service over the past five years in total. However, the final number was appallingly low: Only 11-12 percent of Haredi men of draft age did any kind of service during the decade in question, and a third of those did civilian service in the community, where supervision is poor and the benefit to the state is considered dubious in some cases.
The government’s decisions in the wake of the Gabai committee’s recommendations last year set a more ambitious goal: a gradual increase, by 2015, to 4,800 Haredi “draftees” a year, about half for army service and half for civilian service. Still, given the natural population increase in the ultra-Orthodox sector, this would amount to less than half the number who would be eligible for induction each year. Moreover, the government wanted to achieve even this low proportion of draftees by means of abridged service, whose military usefulness ranges from low to nonexistent.
The solution is clear, Plesner says: setting fixed numerical targets, with the army getting top priority (i.e., in Nahal Haredi and certain technological units), along with national service that benefits society and is closely regulated by the state. This would involve work in the police force, and firefighting and prison services.
“In the next five years we have to reach a target of a third of the young Haredim in the army, a third in national or civilian service (in the Haredi community) and a third in the yeshivas,” Plesner says. “There will not be a situation in which there is a change in the law and all the Haredim will be taken in trucks to the induction center. The vision for a decade down the road has to be obligatory service for everyone, with the exception of Torah studies and exemption from service exclusively for Torah prodigies.
“In 1977,” he continues, “there was a quota of 800 prodigies. In the future it can be 2,000 a year, or 20 percent of the men of draft age. But any improvement such as this requires extensive preparation. For example, as early as the 10th grade, Haredi youngsters who have dropped out of yeshivas should be absorbed by educational institutions to be created by the state for dropouts, in order to prepare them for useful jobs in the army and make it possible for them to enter the labor market afterward.”
For the past three years, Avraham Brun was the IDF’s project director, on behalf of the Personnel Directorate, for the Haredi draft. Brun is very knowledgeable about this subject, dating from the period in which he was the very dominant director general of the association of hesder yeshivas, which combine religious studies with army service. That role, which he concluded this month, has not left him feeling very optimistic. Even though he was in constant contact with many Haredi rabbis and promised that dropouts among their community’s youth would be given vocational training, he does not think that the army and the Haredim are on the right track.
“The IDF is on the point of a break in relations with the Haredi society,” he says. “The drafting of Haredim, especially in the technological tracks, is based on the buddy system, where one young man brings another. If the student doesn’t know what to do, he goes to his rabbi. The rabbi then has to ask questions [on his behalf]. In order to ask, he needs suitable counterparts [within the army].”
At the end of last year, Lt. Col. Ram Moshe Ravad, chief rabbi of the air force and the director of the technological project for Haredim, announced that he was leaving the latter post due to the dispute over women singing in public. Without Ravad, Brun says, the Haredim had no one to turn to.
Brun says there is a high draft potential among ultra-Orthodox yeshiva dropouts. “In 2009 there were 120 kids in the program; now there are 800,” he says. “The Trajtenberg committee [established in the wake of last summer’s social-protest movement] thought the number should reach 3,900 within four years. Unfortunately, people in the army fought me. I don’t want to say more about this, because I hold the army dear. I can only say that in the past two-and-a-half years there was no serious discussion about stepping up the Haredi draft with the participation of the bodies actually involved. There were many discussions about procedures, but not about substantial plans for the future. The result is that the IDF is losing the credit it gained within Haredi society and realizing only part of the draft potential in these frameworks.”
But Brun’s critique goes farther. “I am afraid that it will turn out that the High Court did a terrible wrong to the Israeli society by annulling the Tal Law. We, as a society, need the Haredim. They will manage on their own, somehow. Everyone is talking about the situation today. But look at the country’s kindergartens: Almost a third of them are Haredi. The more the productive elements in Haredi society grow, the better it will be for all of us. Haredi society is in the midst of a process. It is in a different place from where they were three years ago; there are now more Haredim in the army and more in academia. The technological tracks are a great innovation, not least because they diminished the fear of the army among them.
“The annulment of the Tal Law is liable to put a stop to this process and turn the question into a political battle again. Now, with the Haredi rabbis declaring that they will fight a change in the law, we will have a battle on our hands. Who needs that?”