Analysis

The Israeli Army Needs to Draft ultra-Orthodox Jews - for Society's Sake and Its Own

With general enlistment rates falling and combat duty almost volunteer, inequality in ‘sharing the burden’ poses a real danger

FILE PHOTO: Ultra-orthodox men dance around a fire in central Israel during the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba'omer
Gil Cohen-Magen

The High Court of Justice ruling on Tuesday overturning a law that gave ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students widespread draft exemptions is another dramatic development in the never-ending story of the struggle to draft the Haredim.

The justices didn’t completely ignore the important changes that have taken place in this field over the last few years, during which the Israel Defense Forces for the first time began seriously addressing the ultra-Orthodox challenge. Nevertheless, the judges refused to buy the argument that a quiet revolution, in which the Haredim would slowly and peacefully be absorbed into the IDF, would suffice to satisfy the demand for equality in the burden of service at some point in the future.

The ruling is likely to have political ramifications. It is another pothole in the path of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which is already operating in the shadow of the police investigations into the prime minister. It will also undoubtedly have unpleasant consequences for attitudes toward the Supreme Court and the Knesset, since the routine criticisms of settlers and certain Likud party ministers will now be joined by ultra-Orthodox politicians.

An ultra-Orthodox man prays at the entrance to the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem next to Israeli soldiers on September 1, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

In the slightly longer term – the one-year period the court gave the Knesset to enact a new law that will be more egalitarian, effective and proportionate – the ruling will also affect the IDF. The army will have to adapt itself to a new legal situation (assuming the court upholds whatever replacement law is passed).

The IDF refused to comment on the ruling Tuesday night, saying it needs to study the decision. In practice, however, the army is in the politicians’ hands on this issue, and it will have to prepare for two possible scenarios: a compulsory draft for all ultra-Orthodox men (a scenario the IDF has no interest in seeing occur), or other adjustments to the existing law.

But this time, at least, the IDF is entering the situation with relatively clean hands. Until about five years ago, the General Staff excelled at empty talk. The first dribble of ultra-Orthodox enlistees was presented at the time as a great achievement, and officers said the only way to recruit the ultra-Orthodox was to absorb them into the army slowly and gradually, without coercion.

In recent years, however, the IDF has taken the issue more seriously. After two ad hoc Knesset committees were set up in 2013 to revise the conscription law, the IDF made greater efforts both to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to enlist and to utilize their talents in the army. The number of ultra-Orthodox men in uniform rose accordingly.

Nevertheless, two reservations are in order here. First, in an effort to meet the targets the government set, the IDF has used a liberal, expansive definition of who is Haredi, thereby increasing the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers it reports. Second, even this didn’t exactly work, as Gili Cohen reported in Haaretz last month.

A demonstration against the recruitment of Haredi Israelis to the IDF in Jerusalem, March 2017.
Emil Salman

The army failed to meet the target for 2016, drafting only 2,800 ultra-Orthodox soldiers instead of 3,200, or only 87.5 percent of the target. And since the state hasn’t taken all the steps needed to promote the alternative track of civilian national service, the numbers for this track were even farther below expectations.

For years, the IDF viewed drafting the ultra-Orthodox as an unnecessary headache. But the steps it has taken in recent years proved that absorbing ultra-Orthodox soldiers is possible in limited numbers, and that the army has something useful to do with them, as long as it makes sure to draft those who are suitable for service and put them in jobs that suit their abilities.

The IDF has thereby gained more combat soldiers (primarily in the Netzah Yehuda battalion, but recently also in smaller units within the Givati Brigade and the paratroops), as well as soldiers for technology and logistics jobs, and most had reasonable to high levels of motivation. Israeli society and the Haredim themselves have benefited even more: Enlisting in the army brought ultra-Orthodox soldiers closer to the social mainstream and put many on the path to employment after their discharge.

But the IDF needs the Haredim for another reason as well. Equality in the burden of service may not be the issue that most bothers secular and religious Zionist recruits, for whom the draft is compulsory, but it definitely bothers many of their parents. In a society where enlistment rates in general and the number of recruits doing combat service in particular are both falling steadily (and where in practice, a combat soldier has become a kind of volunteer), the lack of equality with the ultra-Orthodox cries out to heaven.

Under these circumstances, Israeli society cannot allow the situation to remain as it is. Even if the army fears it will get burned by entering this political minefield, continuing the existing situation is liable to undermine motivation and fighting spirit within its own ranks.