Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is taking a calculated risk in approving discriminatory legislation aimed at getting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to voluntarily enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.
He doesn’t deny the obvious: that the two draft bills − one dealing with army service and one with alternative civilian national service − indeed favor the Haredim. They create a four-year transition period in which yeshiva students won’t be drafted; allow any yeshiva student to opt for civilian instead of military service, an option not given to secular Israeli Jews can’t; grant full exemption from service at a very young age, 22, for yeshiva students who are older than 18 when the law takes effect; let Haredim start service at age 21 instead of 18; and fully exempt 1,800 outstanding yeshiva students a year.
But he said this arrangement could withstand a constitutional challenge if certain changes were made. In particular, he said, the discriminatory sections should be enacted as temporary rather than permanent legislation.
The ministerial committee that proposed the arrangement accepted this suggestion Tuesday, recommending that the temporary law be in force for three years. If successful, the arrangement can be extended. If not, the government will have to go back to the drawing board.
Weinstein also stressed that since yeshiva students won’t be drafted, “the composition of the incentives” they will be given to serve is “critical.” Here, the devil is in the details.
While the government hasn’t yet decided what incentives to offer, one possibility is financial support for yeshivas that encourage their students to enlist. Weinstein doesn’t rule this out; on the contrary. He adopted the opinion of his deputy, Dina Zilber, who wrote that “the more significant and effective” these incentives seem likely to be in getting Haredim to enlist, the easier it will be for the legislation to surmount a court challenge − and vice versa.
Another necessity, Weinstein said, is strict enforcement to ensure that anyone receiving a deferral as a full-time yeshiva student is actually studying full-time. Such enforcement, which doesn’t exist today, must include frequent inspections of yeshivas rather than reliance on reports submitted by the yeshivas themselves.
From the perspective of the Haredim, the most far-reaching element of Weinstein’s recommendations is probably his demand that the yeshiva heads set clear criteria for choosing the 1,800 students granted full exemptions. Absent such criteria, he fears, these exemptions will be an invitation to corruption.
This demand includes both a carrot and a stick. If the yeshiva heads comply, they will effectively be able to select the exempt students themselves, and the defense minister will back their choices. But if they don’t, the defense minister will himself choose these students.