Haredi National Service Program Misses Its Mark

A program to recruit Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students to volunteer for national service will grow more slowly than expected, Haaretz has learned. An internal document prepared by the Civilian Service Administration says it now expects to reach 2,000 Haredi volunteers by 2014 - and not by 2012, as the administration told the High Court of Justice less than three months ago.

The administration's success or failure is likely to be critical to the fate of the so-called "Tal Law," which has faced repeated High Court challenges since its enactment seven years ago. The law exempts full-time yeshiva students from the draft, but was supposed to encourage them to instead do civilian national service and then to get jobs. The petitioners have argued that it discriminates against non-Haredim and, moreover, it is not even working.

In September, the court deferred a decision on the latest petition by 15 months to give the state more time to show that it really is working. "This isn't a revolution, it's slow evolution," said Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, explaining why the justices felt more time was needed to assess the law's impact.

At the time, only some 700 Haredim were doing civilian national service. But the administration's work plan predicted the number would rise to 2,000 by 2012.

On top of the objective difficulties, the administration also faces a bureaucratic handicap: It has been without a director for months now, ever since Dr. Reuven Gal, one of the driving forces behind the idea of civilian service for Haredim and Arabs, stepped down. Meanwhile, Gal's deputy, Yaakov Amar, is serving as acting director.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Amar confirmed that he recently revised the forecast to 2,000 volunteers by 2014 instead of 2012. "We hope to grow by 500 people a year, starting now, but there are various limitations," he said.

Last month, he noted, 918 Haredim were doing civilian national service - some 200 more than at the time of the High Court hearing.

MK Yohanan Plesner, who heads a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that is tasked with overseeing implementation of the Tal Law, said he was more concerned by the kind of work the volunteers were doing than by the mere number of volunteers.

"Today, 80 to 90 percent of the Haredim serve within the Haredi community," he said, and this is unacceptable: More of them should be serving the broader community, by volunteering with organizations such as the police or fire service.