Despite Recent Furor, Haredi Men Are Hardly Feeling the Draft

Just a few months ago, finding a way to force ultra-Orthodox men to share the military burden was a burning issue. So why is no one in any hurry to find a solution now?

The Tal Law, which granted yeshiva students exemption from military service, expired over a month ago, but army and political figures don't seem to be in any rush to find a replacement. In July, the impending expiration (on August 1 ) was described as a grave political and normative crisis, one which led to the collapse of the Plesner committee - which had been charged with drafting a replacement - and precipitated Kadima's departure from the coalition. Now the matter is being handled by men who seem to have time on their hands.

Officially, the Security Services Law has supplanted the Tal Law. So, as things stand, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students can no longer defer their military service. Theoretically, that is the state of affairs. In practice - and as was foreseeable - the expiration of the Tal Law has not meant that squads of draft-enforcers have been sent to round up ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers in Bnei Brak and other Haredi enclaves.

In coming weeks, thousands of preliminary conscription orders will apparently be sent to ultra-Orthodox boys aged 17, but this mailing is not likely to trigger a social revolution in Israel. The country's politicians are currently hassled by other matters, particularly by the need to get the state budget passed. Political insiders estimate that the various parties will return to the controversial issue of Haredi draft exemptions only after a decision is reached about whether or not early elections are to be staged.

In political terms, the draft question has lost its urgency. Kadima has pulled out of the coalition; other parties, such as Yisrael Beiteinu and Atzmaut - which in the past have stridently advocated change in existing norms of Haredi draft exemption - now seem reluctant to deal with the issue. The controversy will resume only at a time when it is convenient for coalition members, including the religious parties, to make a fuss about the expiration of the Tal Law draft exemption arrangements.

In early August, Defense Minister Ehud Barak appointed a defense ministry staff to formulate possible alternatives to the draft law. In parallel, a professional staff comprised of members of the Israel Defense Forces General Staff's personnel division started to review possible consequences of the implementation of Tal Law alternatives. Barak gave these various forums one month to complete their work; yet it seems that these committees do not feel as though they have to finish their work quickly. The teams continue to convene for meetings, sometimes with Barak in attendance. It now seems that the target date for the formulation of conclusions will be after the fall religious holidays.

The main team appointed by Barak is staffed by the former head of the IDF Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yehuda Segev; head of the Manpower Directorate's planning brigade, Brig. Gen. Gadi Agmon, and legal advisers. Agmon, who handles a variety of matters for the Manpower Directorate, provides technical assessments for the team, which is headed by Segev; he does not assess the political implications of various draft exemption plans. The models reviewed by the team stress the IDF's needs, and the number of ultra-Orthodox men that the army could feasibly bring into its ranks in a relatively short time.

Ideas considered by the team have much in common with the model discussed by the Plesner committee. One plan would expand the Nahal Haredi unit by adding two or three battalions; young ultra-Orthodox recruits would serve on the Home Front Command, and in antiaircraft units, whereas slightly older Haredi men would serve in logistical and technological frameworks. One security source close to these reassessments of Haredi draft possibilities told Haaretz that the security establishment's new proposals feature the provision of substantive salary payments to conscripted soldiers, in line with a proposal forged in the Defense Ministry, under Barak's direction, several months ago.

"We are looking for a model that offers an improved alternative to plans considered by the Plesner committee months ago," says the security source. "One proposal we are now looking at is called 'Plesner lite.' In the final analysis, we need to take political realities into account, and not offer self-defeatingly unrealistic proposals. The idea is to submit a proposed law that will be approved by the Knesset and the cabinet."

Despite his party's departure from the coalition, Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner continues to be in contact with these new committees. Plesner is not bullish about the chances that a new model might be adopted at the behest of recommendations furnished by the defense establishment. He doesn't think that, right now, there is any possibility of legislating a new bill, since there is no basis for an agreement on the issue between Yisrael Beiteinu and the Haredi parties.

As Plesner sees it, the security establishment ought to try to tweak the current situation and institute small changes, particularly by increasing the number of Haredi conscripts. Security officials, Plesner claims, can only work on the basis of the old Security Services Law, which came back into the picture when the Tal Law expired.

In the absence of a comprehensive new law, no fundamental change in IDF draft and exemption arrangements can be anticipated. The IDF's current activity will focus on 8,000 Haredi 17-year-olds who, theoretically, are to be drafted into the army in 2013. Preliminary conscription arrangements can be made with regard to these ultra-Orthodox teenagers - they can be forced to visit local draft boards (as things stand, young Haredi men simply walk into IDF draft facilities, submit a note written by a yeshiva head, and then march right out of the draft board building ).

The IDF, however, does not seem ready to carry out this small change of instituting draft procedures for these Haredi teenagers. New recruits need to be examined and classified; the army needs to test and interview them. For the vast majority of Haredi recruits, contents of draft examinations need to be changed (most of the ultra-Orthodox teenagers have never studied core curriculum subjects familiar to young people who graduate from the state's secular school tracks ). The IDF would also have to make sure that these 8,000 possible recruits are interviewed by male assessors.

Theoretically, the expiration of the Tal Law means that the IDF has to deal with between 54,000 and 60,000 (the exact number is not known ) older Haredi men, most aged 18 to 28, who have enjoyed draft deferrals under the rule that Torah study is their profession. During 2013, all men in this category will officially become eligible for compulsory IDF conscription; most might not pass draft board examinations, but all men in this category theoretically will have to report to local draft centers for assessments.

The bottom line: given Israel's existing political realities, there is little reason to expect major changes in Israel's draft deferral arrangements, particularly if the subject does not become the focus of public debate. In the absence of new legislation, security officials have little leverage to adopt sweeping new draft policies.

Shahar Ilan, deputy director of Hiddush - an NPO that fights for "Religious Freedom and Equality" - offers a blunt analysis of recent steps taken by the security establishment. Frequent committee meetings staged by Barak, Ilan claims, serve as a fig leaf to protect the state during anticipated High Court petitions calling for a change in ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions. The committee sessions also allay public concern, Ilan believes; they create a sense that this vexing issue is being addressed. If you're worried about ultra-Orthodox men being forced into the army, you can relax, says Ilan: "No additional Haredi man will be drafted during the coming year," he says.

Anti-Plesner consensus

This week, a group of social scientists addressed the draft exemption issue, assessing simulated models in a project sponsored by the Open University of Israel. The simulation exercises, sponsored by Prof. Yagil Levy - a leading researcher of topics involving the IDF and Israeli society - dealt with possible consequences of changes to the Tal Law, focusing on scenarios and proposals that have already been considered. Three alternative models were reviewed - the Plesner committee's proposal, a compromise alternative backed by Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, and a draft paradigm submitted by Yair Lapid. Participants in this simulation assessment included Prof. Stuart A. Cohen from Bar-Ilan University and Dr. Reuven Gal, former head of the civil service administration.

Somewhat surprisingly, the eight researchers involved in the project reached what might be called an anti-Plesner consensus. Two months ago, the Plesner committee's proposals received broad backing, particularly among media commentators, but these eight researchers adopted a much more skeptical stance toward them. The researchers, none of them ultra-Orthodox, attacked the Plesner recommendations from various angles. The participants contended that the Plesner proposals' implementation would not have much utility, and would likely bring more damage than benefits.

Among other issues, they anticipate that forceful application of the Plesner plan would incite extreme responses among the Haredi population, and bring to an end trends of pragmatism which have been discernible in the ultra-Orthodox world in recent years.

The state, the researchers contended, would find it very difficult to enforce the new law, and confrontations with the ultra-Orthodox would exacerbate the rift between religious and secular populations in the country. Such controversy would derail trends of Haredi integration in the workplace; and the IDF would have to deal with a new group of extremely unmotivated conscripts.

Massive compulsory conscription would institutionalize inequality in the IDF ranks; soldiers would serve on different tracks; prodigal salary demands would undermine the ethos of compulsory service, and possibly even bring about the collapse of the compulsory service model.

Similar claims were articulated two months ago during a similar symposium sponsored by the Women's International Zionist Organization, at a time when it seemed that the coalition was seriously considering adopting the Plesner committee model. Some researchers at this week's conference warned that widespread Haredi conscription would exacerbate trends of female exclusion in the army, and contribute to trends that could turn female service into a voluntary option in Israel (as a result of the reluctance of young secular women to serve under newly degrading circumstances ).

Prof. Levy stated: "The present conscription model is built upon a fragile network of checks and balances. Any reform would rupture this network, undermine the current model of compulsory conscription and accelerate the transition to the paradigm of a professional army." In light of these negative implications, most participants at the conference supported moderate integration of ultra-Orthodox males in military and national service frameworks, in a model that would upgrade and adjust the original Tal Law: This could be called the Tal Plus Law, or the Plesner Lite model.