Israeli Officials Devise Plan to Coax ultra-Orthodox Into Job Market – at Expense of Army Service

Lowering draft-exemption age aims to deter young men from remaining in yeshiva, finding work instead

Nati Toker
Nati Tucker
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An ultra-Orthodox man reads posted obituaries in Bnei Brak, April 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox man reads posted obituaries in Bnei Brak, April 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Nati Toker
Nati Tucker

After three elections, and a fourth on the way, few Israelis remember the political chaos Israel suffered starting with the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman over the failure to agree on a law for drafting ultra­-Orthodox men.

But over the last several months behind-the-scenes talks have been taking place on a new Haredi draft law. The proposals call for only minor adjustments in the previous draft legislation, mainly by making slight changes in quotas as well as penalties imposed on yeshivas for failing to ensure enough of their young men enlist.

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But a group of treasury officials, backed by their peers in the Economy and Labor ministries, are trying to convince decision-makers to adopt a much more wide-ranging plan that would create a new set of relations between the ultra-Orthodox and the army.

The main point of the program would be to lower the age Haredi men can get an exemption from service to 21. The goal is to get them to join the labor force at as young an age as possible and bring them into the world of work at the same stage of life as non-Haredi Israelis. However, the proposal means that a man who completes three years of study at a yeshiva from ages 18 to 21 will be completely exempt from army service.

The political crisis over the Haredi draft began in 2018 when the High Court of Justice disallowed a section of the previous law that gave ultra-Orthodox men a de facto draft exemption. The court ordered the government to devise a new law that would ensure more equality between the Haredi and non-Haredi populations.

The thrust of the solution that was approved by the cabinet and the Knesset, over strong Haredi objections, was to impose penalties on yeshivas that failed to meet state-imposed draft quotas for the number of students enlisting. The Knesset dispersed for elections and the legislation was frozen. The old system remains in force even though it was deemed unconstitutional.

The final deadline for passing a new law is September 1, 2021. Under the coalition agreement between Likud and Kahol Lavan, the new law will be approved with only minor changes while a government committee will examine a range of issues pertaining to the draft. But, like many parts of the coalition agreement, no such law has been passed and no committee has been formed.

Meanwhile, Haredi lawmakers have been pressuring the Likud and Kahol Lavan to revise the proposed legislation in their favor. However, with an election now on the horizon, the issue is no longer getting much attention.

Growing economic cost

Figures prepared by the Finance Ministry show that by 2030 the losses to the economy due to low labor force participation rate of Haredi men will reach 40 billion shekels ($33 billion at current exchange rates) annually. Due to the high Haredi birth rate, the amount will skyrocket to 400 billion shekels in 2065, by which time the economy will no longer be able to support such a large share of the population not working.

The coronavirus crisis and the debt the government has been running up fighting it, which will reach 80% of gross domestic product, means that the government must find new ways of spurring economic growth. Treasury officials say they believe that raising the Haredi labor force participation rate is one way to achieve that.

Figures for last year show that the participation rate for ultra-Orthodox women has met or even exceeded government targets for ultra-Orthodox men, which remain far below the 63% goal. Depending on the classification used, the participation rate for men is between 48% and 52%.

The reason for the gap, officials say, is the incentive for Haredi males not to enter the labor market. These include subsidized daycare, discounts on municipal taxes and allowances paid for studying at kollels (where adult men study) make working less lucrative, especially when the pay is low.

The odds of reforming the system of financial incentives are poor because successive coalitions have relied on Haredi parties to remain in power. Instead, officials want to remove the legal barriers to Haredi males entering the job market at a younger age.

To do this, ministry officials have proposed a package of reforms. One would lower the age for starting civilian National Service to 20 from 21 and offer more options, such as working in state-owned companies where they might learn job-related skills. Another would allow younger yeshiva students to undergo simultaneous technical training.

Many of these ideas have been suggested before only to meet up with political, legal and bureaucratic objections.

The Israel Defense Forces has objected to lowering the exemption age because it will make it harder to meet the quotas it has for Haredi draftees. As it is, the IDF and the National Service program have struggled to meet those quotas.

Treasury and other officials are trying to convince the army to change its position and have proposed easing the quota requirement by counting enlistees for the army and National Service together. The army has so far rejected the plan.

Haredi politicians are also likely to oppose the treasury-led plan out of fear that lowering the exemption age will lead to a mass exodus of young men out of yeshivas and into the labor market.

In the end, however, legal obstacles may prevent the proposal from moving forward. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has already said that the abortive 2018 legislation was legally problematic and needed to be amended.

In any case, the proposal is being studied seriously. Until now the principal of equality has been the byword of the High Court, but the justices could be convinced to take a wider view based on the reality of the situation: Equality of army service will never be achieved, the army doesn’t need Haredi recruits and the cost of drafting them is especially high (because in most cases they are already married and have families).

Officials argue that equality should be measured more widely than just army service. Non-Haredi youth have an edge in getting an education that is more appropriate for the job market and army service enhances that. The result is growing socio-economic gaps between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israeli Jews. To achieve equality, the government needs to act to close that gap.

In fact, over time more officials and politicians, among them MK Naftali Bennett (Yamina) have come to adopt the view that the government’s main goal should be getting Haredim into the job market, not into the army.

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