The mandatory conscription age for Haredim could have major financial implications for the Israel Defense Forces and the state.
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Yesh Atid, the second-largest party in the new Knesset, has said it will only join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition if the government vows to tackle the issue of young ultra-Orthodox men opting out of military service in favor of pursuing yeshiva studies. But the party has offered two very different solutions, with far-reaching consequences for the state budget.
Party leader MK Yair Lapid supports a proposal requiring Haredi men to be drafted at age 18, while Yesh Atid's No. 2, MK Shay Piron, supports mandatory conscription for Haredi men between the ages of 20 and 21. The difference between the two proposals may appear slight, but the second plan could amount to an added budgetary cost of hundreds of millions of shekels per year.
The total cost of an average IDF conscript – including direct and indirect expenses such as salary, food, transportation and lodging – is about NIS 4,000 a month, according to sources involved in the debate. The total cost of a soldier in the Nahal Haredi battalion, which is primarily for ultra-Orthodox soldiers drafted at age 18, is slightly higher, at about NIS 4,670 per month. That extra NIS 670 per month is attributed to costs for specially supervised kosher food and religious services such as a mobile synagogue for soldiers in the field.
In contrast, the IDF incurs much higher costs for Haredim serving in the Shahar program, which is targeted at ultra-Orthodox men between the ages of 22 and 26. Participants of the Shahar program have shorter military service terms, study academic subjects and receive vocational training. These soldiers cost the IDF an average of NIS 9,500 per month – NIS 5,500 a month more than the average IDF conscript.
The main reason Shahar participants cost so much more than their counterparts in the Nahal Haredi battalion is that these older soldiers are usually married with families. Soldiers with families, regardless of their religious status or affiliation, receive special salary supplements and food coupons from the IDF, based on the number of children they have. Shahar soldiers have an average of two to three children each at the time of service, sometimes more.
The cost of change
The number of Haredim serving in the army has been continuously rising since the ultra-Orthodox service tracks were introduced in the 1990s, reaching a record 1,500 men last year. At present, Haredi soldiers don't constitute a significant additional cost to the IDF, but that is expected to change if a drastic policy overhaul leads to a much larger number of ultra-Orthodox draftees.
The current pool of eligible draft-age Haredim stands at approximately 9,000 men per year. Most are never drafted because they receive deferments to pursue yeshiva studies. But if the draft rate for Haredi men were to suddenly become equal to the rest of Israel's Jewish population – 90% – the number of ultra-Orthodox men serving in the IDF would increase more than fivefold.
The IDF has taken no official position on mandatory conscription for the ultra-Orthodox. What is clear, though, is that the later Haredim are drafted, the greater the financial burden will be on the IDF and the public coffers.
The Israel Democracy Institute is among those who have come out in support of the younger draft age for Haredim. On Wednesday, the institute published a proposal intended to address Israel's unevenly distributed civic burden. Under the proposal, 18-year-old Haredim would be subject to the same draft process as the rest of the general public.
"All those subject to conscription who aren't considered suitable to be drafted for health or any other reasons will receive a permanent [draft] exemption, like their counterparts in the general public," the institute stated. "The army will choose solely those draftees deemed most suitable, based on the army's needs and the fitness of the mandatory conscripts."
The IDI proposal was co-written by three Hebrew University professors – economists Avi Ben-Bassat and Momi Dahan, and law professor Mordechai Kremnitzer. Ben-Bassat chaired a committee seven years ago that published a report recommending shorter mandatory military service.
The IDI issued a total of 14 recommendations regarding mandatory military service for Haredim and addressing Israel's unequal civic burden. Among them, the institute proposed expanding the draft over a period of eight years, with 10 percent of eligible 18-year-old Haredim drafted during the first year. Each subsequent year, the draft rate would increase by 10%, until, by the eighth year, 80% of eligible Haredim would be drafted into the IDF.
Beginning in the eighth year, a full draft exemption would be issued to yeshiva students defined as Talmudic prodigies. Only 5-10% of the ultra-Orthodox population would be defined as such, based on tests administered by a body independent of the yeshivas.
The IDI also recommended that mandatory IDF service gradually be shortened to a period of two years, in keeping with the previous recommendation by the 2006 Ben-Bassat committee. All shortened IDF service programs – for various populations – would be canceled. Consequently, all IDF draftees who join the army through pre-military service academies would be paid minimum wage during their pre-military induction training.
The IDF would be responsible for enforcing the new draft system, under the IDI's proposal. This would include occasionally checking up on yeshiva student prodigies who received draft exemptions to verify that they are in fact learning in yeshiva. Students found to have violated the conditions of their exemption would be drafted, and extra resources would be provided to the IDF to enforce these policies.
The IDI has also proposed that all Haredi men 20 and older receive a full and unconditional draft exemption on the day that the new, proposed legislation goes into effect. According to the 2012 Plesner committee, which examined ways to address the unequal military burden, some 52,000 ultra-Orthodox men deferred their military service after the age-based draft exemption was lowered from 35 to 28.
During the first year of the new system, the IDI recommends that state income benefits to married yeshiva students, as well as state financial aid to yeshivas, be reduced by 50%. In all subsequent years, state benefits to married yeshiva students and yeshivas would be canceled.
The IDI opposes the creation of a special civilian national service track for Haredim, which the proposal's authors say would not serve to equalize the military burden. Under the proposal, it should be up to the IDF whether to send a draftee to serve in the civilian national service.