A proposal to draft some 1,300 ultra-Orthodox men into the national service corps was passed by the Cabinet on Sunday.
At the end of July, the Tal Law, which provided exemptions from military or national service to members of the religious sector for 10 years, expired. Several unsuccessful attempts within the Knesset to draft a substitute failed, but ultra-Orthodox youth have yet to be drafted en masse.
A Government Press Office statement noted that over 2,000 ultra-Orthodox men currently serve in the civil service corps, and of men who have served to date, some 85% were successfully integrated in the Israeli work force.
In February the Supreme Court ruled that the Tal Law was unconstitutional. At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Knesset would draft a revised, more equitable, law within months.
In July, Netanyahu disbanded a committee headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner after some right-wing legislators resigned from that panel, citing its failure to institute a universal draft for Arab citizens as well as ultra-Orthodox.
After Plesner publicized his committee’s recommendations, the prime minister teamed him up with Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon to work out a bill that would incorporate all of the committee’s principles while also taking into account the objections of those who had left the committee. That attempt also failed to produce results, prompting Kadima to bolt the coalition it had joined just three months earlier.
So far, it has been the National Service Administration, which administers the national service corps, that has taken the biggest hit from the Tal Law’s expiration. While it was in effect, some members of the ultra-Orthodox community volunteered for nonmilitary national service. But according to Sar-Shalom Jerby, the head of the administration, now that military exemptions are no longer valid, the few ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews who wish to volunteer are turned away as they must go through the military recruiting channels.
Jerby said that in recent months many of the organizations in which the ultra-Orthodox volunteers had been serving reported serious manpower shortages when volunteers completed their stints and were not replaced by new recruits.
An additional concern expressed by Jerby was the damage to the existing relationship between the ultra-Orthodox community and the National Service Administration. Until now, with national service a viable option for those who did not wish to serve in the military, Jerby said that a certain trust existed between the potential volunteers and the administration. Now, with the administration having to turn away religious men who wish to volunteer for national service, that trust is in jeopardy.
Sunday’s proposal enables the National Service Administration to enlist 500 volunteers immediately, with an additional 800 to be recruited between now and the end of August.
Not everyone is satisfied with this temporary solution. Zohara Berger-Tzur, of the Forum for Citizen Equal Rights and Obligations, said that “rather than dealing with the problem in a serious, thorough and responsible manner, the government again has chosen to do what is expedient.”
While the current government and several of its predecessors have attempted to pass universal draft laws, they have been stymied by the threat of religious parties to bolt the coalition and bring down the government.
MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) was quoted by Maariv on Sunday saying she believed the next coalition could be built without including the ultra-Orthodox Shas party (currently 11 seats strong and expected to maintain approximately that number in the next government), hinting that a coalition sans Shas could push forward universal draft legislation without fear.
“A certain elite should be allowed to continue their Torah study” but a universal draft for the remainder of the ultra-Orthodox is necessary, she said. “There is only one way to achieve that: Don’t give Shas any power.”
Plesner called Sunday’s move “another attempt by the Netanyahu government to maintain the reality of widespread draft dodging.”