Increase in Israeli Women Faking Faith to Dodge Draft

Law to reduce draft evasion passed two years ago, but committees to approve necessary amendments are dragging their feet.

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Political foot dragging has been holding up the implementation of a law aimed at reducing draft evasion by Israeli women for the past two years .

Unlike yeshiva students, women who want to evade military service for religious reasons can do so without submitting proof of having studied in a religious institution. All they have to do to is sign a declaration that they observe Shabbat, keep kosher and do not want to serve in the army, and they receive an exemption automatically.

The Israel Defense Forces says draft evasion is growing exponentially due to the lack of a legal means of dealing with it. It estimates that at least one-quarter of the declarations of religious observance are false. Just under 40 percent of the Jewish women who were due to be drafted last year were not drafted for religious reasons.

Major General Orna Barbivai, head of the Israel Defense Forces Personnel Directorate, has often complained of “the unbearable ease” with which women are exempted from military service. Her two predecessors, retired major generals Avi Zamir and MK Elazar Stern (Hatnua), agree with her.

A new bill aimed at improving the IDF's ability to deal with women who evade military service by falsely claiming they are religiously observant is due to be tabled by Knesset members Ofer Shelach (Yesh Atid) and Eitan Cabel (Labor) at the beginning of March.

The bill would break the current legislative logjam caused by the Knesset's failure pass to amendments proposed by the Defense Ministry two years ago.

In terms of the new bill, the IDF will not need to wait for the criminal conviction of a person who evades the draft by making a false declaration before cancelling her draft exemption. It will be sufficient for the enlistment officer to be convinced that the declaration was false in order for the exemption to be cancelled immediately.

The status quo is convenient for the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties. Although the number of young women from the national-religious community who enlist to the IDF is growing, most of the community’s rabbis and teachers object to women’s military service.

Many women who are not religious also take advantage of the situation. IDF figures show that in 2013, 42.6 percent of the Jewish women who reached enlistment age did not join the army, slightly fewer than those who did not serve in 2007 (43.5 percent). But in 2007, 32.7 percent of the women did not enlist for religious reasons. Last year the number rose to 35.9 percent.

The difference is not only due to the natural growth in the religious and ultra-Orthodox communities. IDF officers believe the main reason for the rise is that many women pretend to be religious to receive an exemption from military service. The number of draft evaders pretending to be religious is estimated as at least a quarter of all the women exempted.

According to the IDF Personnel Directorate, of the women born in 1995 who declared they were religious, 55 percent are ultra-Orthodox, some 36 percent graduated from religious state schools and the rest — about 2,000 women — are defined as “other.” This category includes religious women who went to secular schools, but also women who graduated from religious schools but do not keep a religious lifestyle, the army says.

The IDF has employed private investigators to follow some of the pretenders. Last year, about 100 such investigations were conducted. A few dozen women were caught dressed provocatively in nightclubs or wearing two-piece bathing suits on the beach on Saturday. Many of the women renounced the exemption after being confronted by the detectives’ findings.

In the past year, 62 of these women decided to enlist. But in other cases, when the army charged women with obtaining an exemption on the basis of a fraudulent declaration, it lost in court. The judges said the IDF’s suit had no legal basis, as the law refers only to the woman’s faith at the time of signing the declaration. A few months after declaring she was religious, the signer could say she had changed her ways and the army could not refute her original declaration or force her to enlist.

About two years ago, the Defense Ministry sponsored a bill stipulating that if a woman who was exempted from service for religious reasons stops observing Shabbbat or keeping kosher, she must report this to the military authorities. An enlisting officer who has reason to believe a woman knowingly deceived the army will be able to reexamine her enlistment.

The law was passed in second and third readings in the Knesset and then needed amendments to be implemented. Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak and then Defense Minister Ya’alon submitted the amendments. Barak and Ya’alon, as well as other senior IDF officers, said the existing situation must be changed to stop the draft evasion.

A joint committee was set up by the Foreign Affairs and Defense and Constitution committees at the end of the previous Knesset, but was not convened. Last year, another committee was set up, headed by coalition chairman MK Yariv Levin (Likud). It convened once, but made no decisions.

MK Omer Bar-Lev (Labor) sent a letter to Levin four months ago urging him to convene the committee urgently. This week the defense minister’s aide, Attorney Ruth Bar, sent Levin another reminder.

A Defense Ministry source told Haaretz the ministry has asked Levin several times over the past year to convene the committee to approve the amendments, but to no avail.

“It’s a purely technical procedure that should take 10 minutes. They’re making a mockery of the Knesset. It’s obvious they’re holding things up because of political objection to implementing the law,” the source said.

Civil rights and religious pluralism advocate Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush – for Religious Freedom and Equality, said that burying the women draft dodgers law is “villainy and a deception of the public.”

“Two years ago, the Knesset took full credit for amending the law enabling to indict women draft dodgers … It’s hard to imagine why it’s not approving the amendments and is defending the draft evasion,” Regev said.

"This is further proof of how corrupting the affiliation of religion and politics is," Regev said. “Thousands of draft dodgers are flouting the law and now it’s under the Knesset’s direct sponsorship. The MKs’ failure is much worse, since at the same time [as delaying this law] they’re discussing the extension of women’s military service. It’s a clear example of the kind of acts that make the public lose all confidence in the Knesset."

Women relaxing on Tel Aviv beach, August 20, 2010. Credit: Reuters

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