Gov't Aims to Lure Haredi Men to Workforce With IDF Exemption

New proposal applies to ultra-Orthodox men above age of 23 with 2 children; just 30% of Haredi men are in workforce.

In an effort to boost the number of ultra-Orthodox men in the workforce, the Finance Ministry is proposing an exemption from mandatory military service for married yeshiva students over the age of 23 who have a minimum of two children.

Currently, only 30.6 percent of ultra-Orthodox men work, compared with nearly 70 percent of non-Haredi Jewish men.

According to the current arrangement, the men receive a full exemption from military service when they reach the age of 41. Until that age, they are technically postponing their military service, in order to continue their yeshiva studies. Therefore, ultra-Orthodox men under the age of 41 who wish to leave their studies and enter the workforce face being drafted into the army.

The Tal Law, legislation outlining the requirements for exemption, was passed in 2002 as a solution to the ire that the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military conscription provoked among secular Israelis, offering what was essentially partial conscription. Two weeks ago the Knesset extended the Tal Law for another five years.

According to the law, both married and single yeshiva students are allowed to postpone their military service annually until their 22nd birthday. At that point they enter a "deciding" year - a year of adjustment outside yeshiva life - following which they must do a shortened military stint or national service.

The Finance Ministry is now proposing that every married yeshiva student who is at least 23 years old and has a minimum of two children be exempt from military service. This proposal would signal the demise of the Tal Law on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men, and will be brought before the cabinet on Sunday as part of the Economic Arrangements Bill for 2008.

The proposal would grant married yeshiva students a status similar to that of new immigrants, who are exempt from military service if they are married and have one child.

Should the proposal be approved, very few yeshiva students will have any interest in waiting for a "deciding" year and most will opt to have a second child and be fully exempt from service. Furthermore, the Finance Ministry is proposing that the "deciding" year be offered only to those who are gainfully employed or busy acquiring professional qualifications.

The Finance Ministry is also proposing lifting restrictions on married yeshiva students, allowing them to study only part-time, work full-time and still be exempt from military service.

In the past, working while studying at a yeshiva was considered to be a violation of the agreement between the ultra-Orthodox and the state, which authorized the postponement of military conscription for Haredim because of the centrality of studies to their lives.

Five years ago, as part of the Economic Arrangements Law, the Finance Ministry passed an amendment allowing married yeshiva students, 23 or older, to work while studying. However, this arrangement only permitted them to work very few hours.

Now the Finance Ministry is proposing allowing a reduction in the number of hours that married yeshiva students, 23 or older, must study - from the current 45 hours a week down to 30 - without undermining their exemption from military conscription. The only condition is that in lieu of fewer hours of study at the yeshiva, the ultra-Orthodox men must work or acquire professional qualifications.

Regarding the option of national service, the Finance Ministry is proposing that yeshiva students who have one child would only have to do six months of service. Since the passing of the Tal Law, the Finance Ministry has opposed the national service option and prevented its implementation by not approving funding. Now, the ministry is seeking to minimize the outlay of funds by making national service essentially a symbolic option. In practice, if the Finance Ministry's proposal is passed, thus granting full exemption from conscription to all yeshiva students 23 or older, then requests for doing national service could potentially decline to near zero.