For universal draft lawmakers, a conundrum of Talmudic proportions

A large Zionist-majority coalition is in place, Kadima needs an achievement, and the courts require a new law. But getting the ultra-Orthodox to sign on for national service, insiders say, simply isn’t going to happen

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Watching soldiers at an army ceremony at the Western Wall (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90 )
Watching soldiers at an army ceremony at the Western Wall (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90 )

Ultra-Orthodox leaders say any new bill attempting to impose a mass military or national service draft upon their community will fail, even though such a measure is a centerpiece of the new Knesset unity deal between the Kadima and Likud parties.

A legislative group headed by Kadima will draft the new national service law by the end of July. This will replace the current law, known as the Tal Law, which allows ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to obtain deferments.

The new bill will aim to significantly raise the number of ultra-Orthodox males joining the army or performing a term of national service. The number of outright exemptions, currently in the tens of thousands, will eventually be whittled down to 1,000 students a year.

“No one imagines that they are planning to pack Jews into trains and take them off to the army,” said Yossi Elitov, the editor of the ultra-Orthodox world’s largest weekly, Mishpacha. “What we are talking about is national service.”

The unity government agreement between the Likud and Kadima parties states explicitly that Kadima will head two major legislative initiatives: “the equitable distribution of the burden” of service — a bill that will try to induce or force the ultra-Orthodox and the Israeli Arabs to either join the army or participate in a national civilian service — and the alteration of Israel’s system of government. Both have been on the national agenda for decades. The first is to be accomplished by July 31, and the second by the end of December.

The Tal Law has been in place for 10 years, but in February was ruled unconstitutional by the High Court, which voided any attempt to renew the measure.

A spokeswoman for Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, who is a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in Knesset and headed the subcommittee that examined the sustainability of the Tal Law, said Wednesday, “I have no idea what will happen once we join the coalition but the most natural thing would be for Yohanan to head the body.”

Plesner, a former officer in Israel’s most elite combat unit and a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was ushered into politics by Ehud Olmert and has spent much of his time in office addressing the matter of military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.

For nearly two years he chaired the Subcommittee for the Implementation of the Tal Law, which called in over 100 experts for consultation and consists of the far-right former head of the IDF’s Medical Corps, MK Dr. Aryeh Eldad; Labor Party veteran and reservist MK Eitan Cabel, Kadima MK Yisrael Hasson, a former Shin Bet deputy commander; Yisrael Beytenu’s Moshe Matalon; the chairman of the finance committee, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni; and Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev.

They produced an impressively brief and highly lucid 40-page document that found, based on the statistics, that “the current implementation of the Tal Law has failed.”

The alternative they submitted to the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Shaul Mofaz, and the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office suggested an array of remedies: increasing the army’s capacity to draft ultra-Orthodox men, which would consume a larger chunk of the defense budget and provide a more complete separation of the sexes; an equal split of the roughly 10,000 ultra-Orthodox men a year eligible for the draft into three categories: army, national service and exemption; a later goal of whittling down the number of those exempted to one thousand by administering exams that would gauge true excellence; the creation of a national service branch in the Prime Minister’s Office, with its own separate funding in the budget; and a series of incentives and punitive measures for those who accede to the draft or volunteer for national service and those who avoid serving.

Kadima has since bolstered the recommendations. The party now calls for the creation of a new Basic Law addressing the issue of national service, which would carry the weight of an article of Israel’s putative constitution, and the appointment of a national service minister.

They are further seeking to raise the pay of combat soldiers, who today make a little more than $100 a month. This will likely be the basis for the legislation they will try to push through cabinet and Knesset from within the unity government.

The trouble is that on the thin black lines upon the cover page of Plesner’s original report, there are only five names. Gafni and Ze’ev, the two ultra-Orthodox members of the subcommittee, refused to sign.

“We have no right to exist as a people without those who study Torah, and no right over this land without them,” Gafni wrote to Plesner, explaining that without a study on the national importance of Torah study he could not cooperate with the findings of the committee.

Mishpacha editor Elitov believes, firstly, that nothing will happen. “(Prime Minister) Netanyahu doesn’t decide about anything. He takes 30 months for things that take two weeks. He is the product of the new politics, where the central value is survival… as far as he’s concerned it would be best not to decide for 20 years.” (Quite how Netanyahu will be able to do nothing, Elitov does not explain. If a replacement for the Tal Law is not legislated, all ultra-Orthodox youngsters not in service will theoretically be lawbreakers.)

If nonetheless the matter is brought to the fore, Elitov says, the complex relationship between the secular and ultra-Orthodox camps will be reexamined. “Once you open up the Tal Law it won’t stop there.”

He suggested that the army was for the most part a nonstarter, with both the IDF utterly uninterested in absorbing thousands of ultra-Orthodox — paying for their supremely kosher food and their far higher salaries on account of children and enforcing a complete separation of the sexes — and the ultra-Orthodox community fearing a mass loss of faith while in uniform.

“If we parachuted 1,000 soldiers on them today, their entire system would collapse,” he said.

Instead what he believes may happen is mutual recognition. The secular camp will allow charitable community service to be considered a national service, and the ultra-Orthodox camp will openly hail those who serve in the army, “saluting every Hebrew mother who sends her son to service.” This is very different to the Plesner report, which seeks ultra-Orthodox service primarily in strained national security forces like the police, the fire departments and Magen David Adom, along with a commitment for soldier-like reserve duty deep into middle age.

Above all else, however, Elitov said talk of new legislation would allow the ultra-Orthodox community a chance to remedy its longstanding failure to explain the importance of Torah study to the public.

“The single, razor-sharp historic truth is that Torah study is the secret of Jewish survival,” he said, and we have failed to explain this crucial fact to the public. Without Torah study, he concluded, “Israel will just be a Hebrew-speaking Sweden.”



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