Analysis

The Battle Over Israel's ultra-Orthodox Draft Bill Descends Into Petty Politics

Lieberman worries about his Russian constituents and Litzman about his patron. No one is looking at the critical economic implications

File photo: Yaakov Litzman and Avigdor Lieberman in 2011.
Tomer Appelbaum

As the government faces a September deadline by the High Court to come up with an acceptable formula for drafting young ultra-Orthodox men into the military, the most practical strategy would be to seek a delay and let the next government worry about it.

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The court has been flexible in the past and probably will be now. But that is not how things are shaping up.

Battle lines over the law drafting the ultra-Orthodox have been drawn, and they put Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman versus Yaakov Litzman, the ultra-Orthodox deputy health minister. If the legislation ends up containing the word “sanctions,” Lieberman will have prevailed and if not, victory goes to Litzman.

A Defense Ministry committee has reportedly recommended  in a report to Lieberman and military Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot financial penalties on the yeshivas that fail to meet enlistment quota for their students. The only question remains how serious they should be.

Most of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition would be pleased to have the issue go away. The other coalition partners – Habayit Hayehudi and Kulanu – are sitting on the sidelines while Lieberman and Liztman duke it out.

Even ultra-Orthodox lawmakers from the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, who ostensibly oppose the draft, quietly regard the struggle over the draft as essentially Litzman’s personal cause and due to pressure being exerted on him by his patron, the Gerrer rebbe.

Lieberman was supposed to be the side that would retreat on the issue out of fear he would bring down the coalition if he didn’t. But at a time when Netanyahu is impressing Lieberman’s core constituency of Israeli Russian voters with his visits to the Kremlin and close ties to Putin, Lieberman isn’t going to let them down on the draft issue that is so dear to them.

But amid all this petty political infighting, what the government seems to have forgotten is that the real issue of the Haredi draft isn’t over sanctions or no sanctions, but over integrating the tenth of the Israeli population now absent from the country’s economic life. The law isn’t just over army service but at what age ultra-Orthodox males will join the labor market.

This is an issue that will grow more serious as time goes on. And Israel’s demographics change. Half of the children in Israel’s first grades are ultra-Orthodox or Israeli Arabs, neither of whose young serve in the army. If the 70-year-old practice of letting Haredim avoid the draft continues, the notion of a people’s army will become history.

There are those who believe that legislation can do the trick, such as  Prof. Yedidya Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Financial penalties can be an excellent tool. Criminal sanctions will only cause a split in the nation and as a result fewer Haredim will be drafted,” he told TheMarker.

He dismissed the notion that the bills would be struck down by the High Court as collective punishment because they would still meet the test of not violating the principle of human dignity.

“Just as Israel decides how much money it allocates in defense, highways and education, budgets for yeshivas are also a public good,” Stern said. “A decision that the government is ready to allocate money to yeshivas so long as they reach a certain number of enlistees is a legitimate political decision.”

He said sanctions would give the yeshivas the stark choice of either encouraging students to serve in the army or allowing them to fall into deep poverty because there is no longer any government aid. He estimates that two-thirds of yeshiva students would opt to stop learning at a young age if they had the choice.

Stern said it would be impossible for the government to impose personal sanctions of students because it doesn’t have the ability to distinguish between those with the talents and abilities to remain in yeshiva and those who don’t. “The government needs to exert gradual financial pressure and set realistic targets. Done properly, you can reach a situation in five years where 50 percent or 60 percent of yeshivas students are doing significant army service,” he said.

Ofer Shelah, the Yesh Atid MK who played a significant role in formulating the 2014 military draft legislation, is skeptical about assigning the role of deciding on sanctions to the army and Defense Ministry.

“The army is the last institution that should be deciding enlistment policies. The army’s role is to take for service those whom the State of Israel has given it as soldiers,” he told TheMarker last week. “The decision on who will serve in the Israel Defense Forces is a national-values decision.”

Gilad Barnea, an attorney specializing in public law that has taken a leading role in the fight for a Haredi draft, said the traditional argument ultra-Orthodox leaders make, namely that army service would undermine their communities and religious values, is increasingly irrelevant.

“The army in recent years has made a major effort to help Haredim,” he said. “It has formed all-Haredi units, where they can serve without women and keep kosher – all to show that they can serve and remain observant when they leave.”