The Israeli army is preparing to draft 18-year-old ultra-Orthodox men next summer, Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced Monday. It was not clear, however, whether any ultra-Orthodox youngsters would actually be affected by the preparations in the near future.
And Barak added that the ongoing saga of ultra-Orthodox conscription could only be solved by consensus-based legislation, which he said could be expected by August, some seven months after the upcoming elections.
Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that in lieu of the Tal Law, which exclusively governed the issue of ultra-Orthodox military service and expired on August 1, he had instructed the army to design an interim plan that would leave unaltered the status of yeshiva students in their 20s but would begin preparing to draft those in their late teens.
Barak said he had directed the army to “put an emphasis on correcting the future,” meaning 16-18-year-olds. The status of the others, the bulk of the 60,000 students of army age currently not serving, could not be decided by decree alone, he said, adding that such a move would seem “predatory” and that the decision was best decided at the polls “in another 100 days.”
The issue of compulsory military service has strained the relationship between the state and the Jewish ultra-Orthodox minority since its inception. According to the accepted lore, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, granted the ultra-Orthodox leaders an exemption for 400 students, so that after the Holocaust, as former Supreme Court Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch put it, “the candle of Torah would not be extinguished.” Ben-Gurion later regretted it. Ever since, exemption rather than military service has been the norm for the ultra-Orthodox community.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders, such as MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party, assert that Torah study is itself a service to the state and that it, and it alone “kept the Jewish people alive and enabled them to return to their land.”
The army has made “massive preparations” for the inclusion of ultra-Orthodox men into its ranks, Barak told Gafni and other MKs assembled for the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting.
Hiddush, an NGO that has campaigned for a draft for all, greeted Barak’s announcement with derision. “Unfortunately there is not the slightest chance that even one yeshiva student will be drafted on account of this new plan and the sending of draft notices,” a statement read. “Those who really want to draft yeshiva students, do it, they don’t talk about it or plan it,” added the deputy director of the organization, Shahar Ilan.
Brig. Gen. Gadi Agmon, a senior officer with the manpower division, presented the outlines of the IDF plan. He said that the army will establish four new battalions for ultra-Orthodox soldiers, similar to the Netzach Yehuda battalions that currently exist; expand the technology track, which has proven attractive for married men looking to serve and then enter workforce; establish a “hesder” track identical to the one that currently exists for national-religious soldiers; and create several new battalions with the homefront command, allowing for soldiers to serve in a more limited capacity as firefighters, police officers and medics.
Agmon said the IDF was preparing to process “the entire class of 2013,” adding, however, that exemptions would be made for especially good students and those who, as in the population at large, were unfit for service.
The army is planning to send out draft notices and summonses to thousands of ultra-Orthodox teenagers in the coming weeks. Agmon, though, assured the ultra-Orthodox politicians in the room that there would be no draft by force and that the medical examinations would be conducted by men and the psychological tests, generally administered by female soldiers, would be given “with the door open.”
His assurances, amid coming elections, did little to soothe those in attendance — from all camps.
MK Yohanan Plesner of Kadima, who made what Barak called “a heroic effort” to draft a legislative proposal for the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men, likened Barak’s interim plan to the interim agreements reached with the Palestinian Authority, which, he said, often lead nowhere. Moreover, he said, so long as there is no new law on the books, the facts of the equation would not be changed and they — the 50% of Jewish first graders currently studying in the ultra-Orthodox school system, with no intention of performing military service — were the “real ticking bomb.” In the spirit of elections he added that, in this case, “Netanyahu has refrained from drawing a red line.”
MK Aryeh Eldad of the far-right National Union Party demanded that Barak use the 1986 law at his disposal to draft the Israeli Arab population into service, asking, “Under what mechanism are they exempted?”
Most disturbed, however, were MKs Moshe Gafni and Israel Eichler of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party. Eichler warned that any sort of forced decision could lead to riots “similar to those in Syria and Egypt” and Gafni, who like everyone else in the room was eager to put on a pre-elections show, told Barak and others that if they thought they would send police in to the Ponevezh Yeshiva at midnight to arrest students while they studied, “you don’t know what planet you live on.”
Gafni added that everyone in the ultra-Orthodox communities knows there will be a law, saying that there was a genuine need for a law, but warned against any attempt to draft by force — a scenario that everyone in the room agreed was highly unlikely.