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The Controversial Law That Would Press Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Community Into Military Service

The defense minister is spearheading legislation to get nearly 7,000 Haredim into the army by 2027. But neither the ultra-Orthodox nor left-wing politicians are happy with the proposed bill, with the former threatening to quit the government if it proceeds

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An ultra-Orthodox Jew getting hit by a police water canon during a protest against Israeli army conscription, in Jerusalem, March 2017.
An ultra-Orthodox Jew getting hit by a police water canon during a protest against Israeli army conscription, in Jerusalem, March 2017.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

Inequality of military service is the simmering volcano of Israeli politics.

Public anger at the fact that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students are exempt from serving for three years in the Israel Defense Forces periodically erupts into protest and a push for legislation that would force larger numbers of the religious community into uniform.

The latest attempt, spearheaded by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and expected to pass its first reading vote in the Knesset on Monday night, aims to hit the ultra-Orthodox community where it hurts – the pocketbook.

According to the current version of the proposed law, yeshivas will be required to meet a quota of students who move from their studies into the military or do some alternative form of national service.

Quotas will be lower at first, then rise year by year. After the second year following passage of the legislation, punishment for failure to hit the quotas will kick in.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Katzrin, April 2018.Credit: Gil Eliahu

During years three and four, any yeshiva that doesn’t make its quota will face a financial penalty. Its loss of government funding will correspond to the proportion by which it falls short of its quota. In other words, the fewer soldiers it sends to the IDF, the less money it will receive.

The penalty will grow harsher in the fifth and sixth years of the legislation, and harsher still in subsequent years – first doubling, then tripling, and finally quadrupling.

The legislation stipulates that the percentage of students coming from a yeshiva to the army must rise between 5 and 8 percent each year, with the goal of doubling the number of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in the IDF by 2027.

The 2018 quota for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in army service would be almost 4,000. By the end of the yearly increases in 2027, the goal is to have over 6,844 ultra-Orthodox recruits in service.

The most far-reaching and controversial part of the legislation is the punishment aimed at scuttling large-scale attempts by ultra-Orthodox community leaders to resist the law.

If the total number of yeshiva students in service fails to reach at least 85 percent of the quota for three years running, all bets will be off and all ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students will be forced to enlist, the draft law says.

An ultra-Orthodox protest in Bnei Brak against the drafting of Haredim into the Israeli army, March 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The current legislation has opponents on both sides.

The ultra-Orthodox, as usual, are fiercely resisting any attempts to strong-arm their community into the military in significant numbers.

As they have successfully done in the past, the ultra-Orthodox parties are doing all they can to torpedo the bill. Indeed, on Monday, United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman warned that if the bill passes its second and third readings in the Knesset this week, his party will resign from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition over the matter.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have proposed alternative legislation that would exempt all yeshiva students from military service. But the current process was spurred by the Israeli High Court of Justice striking down such a bill last September, on the grounds that it violated basic principles of equality.

The court gave the government 12 months to pass legislation formalizing effective and egalitarian requirements for ultra-Orthodox military service.

In an ideal world, the ultra-Orthodox parties would like to shut down the entire process with the passage of a Basic Law (a law with constitutional status) that would provide a draft exemption for Torah study by equating it with military service.

So far, though, even their considerable political clout hasn’t proven sufficient for the Netanyahu government to acquiesce to such a proposal, which would surely infuriate a large percentage of the electorate and exact a high political price.

Opponents on the left, meanwhile, object to the fact that while secular draft-dodgers are criminally responsible for their actions, the proposed legislation only imposes collective financial punishments on the ultra-Orthodox community and does not include enough individual criminal liability. They also view the process of drafting ultra-Orthodox soldiers as too slow and too incremental.

The proposed law has been slammed by opposition politicians such as MK Itzik Shmuli (Zionist Union), who called the legislation “a plan that’s a complete disgrace and a writ of surrender that grants a green light to draft evasion.”

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