New ultra-Orthodox Draft Bill Would Fine Yeshivas for Not Meeting Quota

Unlike the existing law overturned by the High Court, new bill imposes sanctions on yeshivas that don't reach 95 percent enlistment target

Ultra-orthodox yeshiva students studying in Bnei Brak in central Israel.
גיל כהן-מגן

Financial penalties should be imposed on ultra-Orthodox yeshivas whose students fail to meet quotas for military or national civil service, a committee charged with preparing a new conscription bill recommended Monday.

Both Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot approved the panel’s recommendations. The Defense Ministry has formulated them into a bill, which it hopes the Knesset will pass before the summer session ends.

The penalties would not be imposed during the first two years after the bill takes effect, the committee said. Like the existing law it is meant to replace, the bill would set quotas for the number of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students enlisting in military or civilian national service.

These quotas would rise from year to year. Unlike the existing law, however, yeshivas would have to fulfill at least 95 percent of their individual quotas, and failure to do so would lead to economic penalties.

In the third and fourth year after the bill takes effect, such a yeshiva would lose a proportion of its government funding equal to the proportion by which it fell short of its quota. The penalty would then rise to double this proportion in the fifth and sixth years, triple the shortfall in the seventh and eighth years and quadruple it in the ninth and tenth years.

For 2018, the committee proposed a quota of 3,996 ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students doing either military or civilian service. It said this quota should rise by eight percent in each of the following two years, then by 6.5 percent for the next three, such that the quota in 2023 would be 5,635. From 2024 through 2027, it proposed a five percent annual increase, such that the quota would be 6,844 at the end of this period.

In another innovation, if the number of yeshiva students in service fails to reach at least 85 percent of the quota for three years running, the law would automatically be canceled, which would mean automatic enlistment of all ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students.

The committee also recommended creating special service tracks for the ultra-Orthodox that would promote their integration into the job market.

The committee was established by Lieberman after the High Court of Justice overturned the existing conscription law last September but gave the government a year’s grace period in which to draft a new one. It is chaired by the Defense Ministry’s legal advisor, attorney Itay Offir. Its other members are the head of the IDF’s planning and personnel brigade, Brig. Gen. Eran Shani; Military Advocate General Sharon Afek; IDF Chief Rabbi Eyal Krim; and the head of the Defense Ministry’s socio-security department, Moshe Zin.

The unveiling of the committee’s recommendations was delayed for more than two weeks by a dispute within the governing coalition over what sanctions to include. Lieberman had insisted that government funding for yeshivas be cut if the yeshivas don’t meet their enlistment quotas, while the ultra-Orthodox parties opposed this.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that he hasn’t yet seen the committee’s report. “We’ll try to reach a broad agreement within the coalition and pass the law, even though the schedule is very tight,” he added.

Netanyahu had originally set up his own committee to draft a new law, but that committee was unable to come up with a version acceptable to all the coalition parties. The ultra-Orthodox parties then submitted their own bill, which would have exempted all yeshiva students from military service, and threatened not to support the 2019 budget if it didn’t pass. That crisis was resolved with a deal under which the ultra-Orthodox parties' bill passed the first of four required parliamentary votes but was then frozen.

The Equality of Burden Forum, a group that favors drafting the ultra-Orthodox, lambasted the committee’s proposal.

“Even Defense Minister Lieberman, who used to be one of our biggest supporters, caved in to politics and the desire to keep his job,” it said in a statement. “These recommendations won’t change a thing about the existing situation and will maintain the severe discrimination – secular people and some religious Zionists to the army, while the ultra-Orthodox do whatever they please, with high salaries and no sanctions. This is another law that will fail both the public’s test and that of the High Court.”