Cabinet to Approve One-year Civilian Service for Haredim

Opponents of the bill say it would allow Haredim to evade the draft, thereby discriminating against the secular and religious Zionist segments of the Israeli population.

The cabinet will consider a bill on Sunday that would set new rules for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) service in the Israel Defense Forces and/or national service. Though it sets relatively ambitious goals for such service, it has raised the ire of opposition politicians and human rights groups, who say it would allow Haredim to evade the draft but still work, and thus discriminates against their secular and religious Zionist colleagues.

The bill was drafted by a committee headed by Director General of the Prime Minister's Office Eyal Gabai, with input from Shas politicians and leading Haredi rabbis, after the High Court of Justice ordered the state to explain by the end of the year how it intended to implement the Tal Law on drafting Haredim.

Over the past few years, the number of yeshiva students exempted from military duty has grown dramatically, and senior Israel Defense Forces officers say the army needs more conscripts.

The bill would let Haredim do abbreviated service of one year only in the emergency services, such as the police, the Magen David Adom ambulance service and the fire department, in lieu of military service. So it is not clear how it would help the IDF's manpower shortage.

This option would be open to all married yeshiva students over age 22, including childless ones, and to all single yeshiva students over age 24. Until now, Haredim had to either serve in the army or remain in yeshiva for many more years to obtain a complete exemption from military service.

Yeshiva students who do not serve, either in the IDF or in the emergency services, would be moved into the army reserves at age 28, instead of only after they turn 30, as is the case today. But it is doubtful that the army would ever call them up, since they will have received no training at all.

The proposal sets a goal of eventually having 65 percent of Haredi men serve, half of them in the army and half in civilian national service. For 2011, the goal is to draft 1,200 Haredim into the IDF, about 200 more than the number drafted this year. By 2015, the target will rise to 2,400.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee set up a subcommittee 18 months ago to examine the Tal Law's implementation, and the panel has since met with most senior defense establishment officials. Yesterday, subcommittee chairman MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) blasted the bill and urged the prime and defense ministers to kill it.

"From studying the proposal, it appears to be intended to appease the High Court of Justice rather than solve the problem and lead to real change," Plesner wrote in a letter to Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. "Worse, it will cause the continued erosion of the IDF as the people's army."

Plesner and the nonprofit organization Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality, which issued its own statement yesterday, both listed the following flaws in the bill:

* It would enable married yeshiva students aged 22 and over to get a complete exemption from army service in exchange for a mere year's service in a civilian job, while their secular or religious Zionist colleagues must serve three years in the IDF. It would thereby officially legitimize discrimination and inequality.

* It provides an incentive for Haredim to opt for civilian service, thus reducing their incentive to join the IDF.

* The bill's goal of drafting 2,400 yeshiva students in 2015 does not clarify whether they would do military service or abbreviated civilian service. If the latter, it would not be a significant service equal to the army service done by secular and religious Zionist men.

* The option of serving in the emergency services is not new; the Tal Law authorized it 10 years ago. But hardly any Haredim have actually joined the emergency services. Without significant effort and an adequate budget, this goal will not be achieved.

The new bill creates a disincentive for military service, Plesner wrote, "by making both civilian service and studying in yeshiva until the age of full exemption preferable." This would thwart the Tal Law's original intention, which was to integrate yeshiva students into the IDF.

"The law's basic premise is that civilian service is of less importance than military service, not equal to it," Plesner wrote.