Israeli Cabinet Endorses ultra-Orthodox Conscription Legislation in 'Historic Step'

Bennett says move will encourage ultra-Orthodox employment as government agrees on proposal after years of political clashes over the issue

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A young ultra-Orthodox man stands next to an ad for high-tech job training for soldiers, last month.
A young ultra-Orthodox man stands next to an ad for high-tech job training for soldiers, last month.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Hagai Amit

The cabinet approved on Sunday draft legislation on draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students following years of political wrangling, in a move that the government said would encourage ultra-Orthodox employment.

The proposal, which is expected to be passed into law by the Knesset, would lower the age at which ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students become exempt from conscription to 21, down from the current 24.

A statement put out by the Prime Minister’s Office said that under this plan, the exemption age would be then be raised to 22 two years later, and to 23 the year after that. But even after the exemption age is raised again, ultra-Orthodox men could still be exempted from army service at age 21 if they are preparing to enter the workforce by taking a professional training course or training for a security-related job.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett termed the plan “a historic step for Israel’s future,” adding, “we’re removing the barriers and enabling tens of thousands of young ultra-Orthodox men to integrate into the job market.”

The bill also calls for setting up a task force comprising representatives of the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister that will be responsible for examining existing arrangements for military service and civilian national service and creating a new, broader framework that meets not only Israel’s security needs, but also its economic needs and the needs of Israeli society. The task force will be required to submit its recommendations by November 2022.

The question of drafting ultra-Orthodox men has been highly controversial for many years, and a law exempting yeshiva students from service has been extended time and again.

The High Court of Justice ruled the exemption law unconstitutional in an 8-1 decision in September 2017, but allowed it to remain in force for a year to give the state time to legislate a replacement. Since then, it has periodically approved the state’s requests for postponements of this deadline.

Several proposals for legislation to settle the issue, including one drafted by the Defense Ministry and the army, have been torpedoed because of opposition by ultra-Orthodox parties, which were part of every coalition government from 2015 until 2021, when the current coalition was formed.

It was disagreement over the issue that led to elections being brought forward in 2019, and it was over this issue that Avigdor Lieberman refused to join a coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties after that election – which resulted in the first time in Israel's history in which no candidate was able to form a coalition and the Knesset dissolved itself before a government was formed.

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