Government Proposes Housing as Incentive for ultra-Orthodox Army Draft

Top court judges blast proposal, saying new law essentially makes draft 'voluntary.'

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Ultra-Orthodox soldier at IDF recruitment base.
Ultra-Orthodox soldier at IDF recruitment base.Credit: Moti Milrod
Sharon Pulwer
Sharon Pulwer

The government Sunday unveiled proposed incentives to encourage ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to join the army, but the High Court of Justice judges hearing the proposals criticized the new law for having all carrots and no sticks: It includes no sanctions for yeshivas whose students don’t enlist.

Commenting that the law essentially makes the draft “voluntary,” Justice Uri Shoham asked, “If it’s voluntary, why do you need a law at all?”

The High Court hearing was held on several petitions against the new conscription law passed in November.

The incentives, proposed by an inter-ministerial task force, include housing assistance for ultra-Orthodox men who enlist, extra funding for yeshivas whose students enlist, and training programs to prepare ultra-Orthodox enlistees for the labor market.

The inter-ministerial task force, which was set up in January, includes representatives of the defense, finance, economy and education ministries, along with the Israel Defense Forces and the National Civilian Service Administration. Its proposed incentives relate to the period until June 30, 2020, when the law’s “initial adjustment period” ends.

During that period, enlistment targets for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students will be set but not enforced. It will be followed by a “second adjustment period,” from 2020 to 2023, during which if those targets are met, all other ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students will continue receiving draft deferments. If not, the defense minister will be authorized to draft as many yeshiva students aged 21 or older as necessary to reach the target.

The task force’s key proposal was to give yeshivas extra money for every student who, after being there at least six months, subsequently enlisted in the IDF or volunteered for civilian national service. The extra money will be paid for one year after the student enlists.

An ultra-Orthodox protest against the Israeli military draft.Credit: Oren Nahshon

Another proposal is that ultra-Orthodox men who do military or civilian national service be given significant discounts in buying apartments or land. The task force suggested that the housing, justice and finance ministries, together with the Israel Lands Authority, draw up relevant criteria.

A third proposal would create training programs that will give ultra-Orthodox enlistees the tools to enter the labor market when they finish their service.

The task force also suggested that Defense Ministry representatives visit yeshivas three times a year, both to familiarize students with the army and to inspect whether yeshivas are meeting the targets.

To encourage people who don’t enlist to do civilian national service, the panel proposed raising stipends for ultra-Orthodox volunteers.

It also proposed that even after ultra-Orthodox men complete their military or civilian service, the Economy Ministry continue subsidizing daycare for their children.

Finally, it proposed expanding educational activity to encourage enlistment in ultra-Orthodox communities, with help from the local authorities, and empowering the Education Ministry department that oversees ultra-Orthodox schools to investigate complaints about the children of ultra-Orthodox draftees being ostracized at school.

The justices, however, criticized the fact that the proposals included no sanctions against those who don’t enlist.

“You’ve created a monster here, and you’re incentivizing a situation in which people don’t go to the army and don’t learn the core curriculum,” said Justice Uzi Vogelman. “But when you try to deal with this situation in a gradual manner, you say the approach shouldn’t be confrontational, but softer. The question, however, is whether this soft approach shouldn’t also include an aspect of stripping [financial] support when the targets aren’t met. ... You don’t create motivation for change when there are only carrots.”

Justice Esther Hayut asked whether yeshiva funding could be cut if enlistment targets weren’t met, and government attorney Dana Briskman responded that this would require the education minister to amend the regulations. Justice Shoham then pointed out that this means it depends entirely on the government’s political will, since the law itself provides no sticks.

Justice Neal Hendel also complained that enlistment was merely “a recommendation,” with no sanctions at all if targets aren’t met in the first stage, “and even in the second stage, it’s not clear what the sanctions are.”

Justice Elyakim Rubinstein termed the law a “fata morgana” that will never lead to full ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

Briskman, however, argued that ultra-Orthodox enlistment is rising in practice, and making it compulsory would likely be counterproductive, as it would “cause conflict and division.”

Attorney Gur Bligh, representing the Knesset, concurred. “Today, tens of percent enlist for significant military or civilian service,” he said. “Is this optimal? No. Is it dramatic? Yes. We’re not talking in theory about whether soft tactics will succeed. They are succeeding.”

He also argued that this is a core political issue in which the court shouldn’t intervene.

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