New ultra-Orthodox draft law seen as ineffective, insulting

Passed last week after years of wrangling, legislation leaves almost everyone unhappy, including the MK who oversaw it

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a mass protest in Jerusalem against compulsory military service, March 2, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a mass protest in Jerusalem against compulsory military service, March 2, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The ultra-Orthodox draft bill that passed last week is the result of years of debates, judicial wrangling and frenetic political maneuvering. But it is by no means the end of the story when it comes to ultra-Orthodox national service.

The final bill leaves nearly everyone unhappy. Those eager for equal service from Haredim after 65 years of inequity are disappointed at the three-year delay before meaningful enforcement kicks in in mid-2017 – enough time for the political winds, and with it the legislation, to change. Haredi leaders who view military service as anathema to their religious lifestyle see the individual criminal sanctions the new law imposes on draft-dodging Haredim as the declaration of a culture war.

Meanwhile, those Haredim who quietly acknowledge that much of their community actually wants to integrate more fully into Israeli public life, including performing national service and entering the workforce, are frustrated at what they see as the law’s rejection of compromise.

The result is a widespread consensus against the law, with Haredim uniting with many advocates of a Haredi draft to argue that the law effectively offers the worst of both worlds. Haredi yeshiva students are given full exemptions from military service for several years, then in 2017 will suddenly be told that the demands of their religious studies and lifestyle are criminal offenses.

The Times of Israel tried to obtain a response from MK Ofer Shelach (Yesh Atid), the co-chair of the Shaked Committee who led the insistence on criminal sanctions, but Shelach’s staff declined repeated requests. A Yesh Atid party spokesperson also declined to comment.

“There’s no doubt this bill is ineffective in advancing equal service, which is the reason we went to the last elections,” noted Prof. Yedidia Stern, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a former dean of Bar-Ilan University’s Law Faculty.

Stern was a key expert adviser to the Shaked Committee which drafted the new law, and was a member of the Plesner Committee, which worked on a different version of the law in the last Knesset and whose work led to the last government’s fall and new elections.

The final draft law “is ineffective because it starts operating, de facto, only in 2017. But it immediately absolves a large group of some 50,000 Haredi men of service,” since, by replacing the previous Tal Law which the High Court of Justice called unconstitutional last year, it removes the obligation to continue their religious studies or face the draft.

Under the new law, “any [Haredi man] who is today 18, if he’s willing to [stay in yeshiva] till [the end of the draft requirement age], is free of all obligations of service… It’s the opposite of equality.”

Even in 2017, notes Stern, “when today’s 18-year-olds will already be 21, only 5,200 will have to serve,” according to the new law’s quota system. “That’s 5,200 out of the entire group of [eligible] Haredi men.”

The IDF has estimated that the size of a cohort of eligible Haredi draftees will be as high as 10,000 by 2017. Other estimates have placed the number at some 7,000 eligible for military service. So the new law would effectively see a draft of 5,200 out of a draft-eligible pool of perhaps 60,000 (this includes young men from 18 to 26, which is the upper draft-eligible age).

“And 5,200 isn’t just for the army, but includes those who go to national service,” notes Stern.

Thus, even by 2017, the full draft would constitute perhaps 10 percent of those eligible, less even than the estimates for the number of Haredi men who drop out of yeshiva and cease their religious studies.

“The Welfare Ministry says 20 percent of Haredi men drop out of yeshiva. If only they were to go to the army, we’d meet the [new law’s] quota. But that’s not why we started working on this.”

Even after several years of operation, “the law doesn’t achieve equality. At the same time, it insults the Haredi public profoundly, symbolically, because in 2017 it institutes criminal sanctions” for each man who avoids the draft – if the quotas are not met.

“In reality, these sanctions won’t be enforced, because the draft goals aren’t high. But the law now says that if Haredim don’t meet these goals, people will be taken from their Torah study and sent to prison for two years,” notes Stern.

“A wise state doesn’t institute a law it doesn’t intend to carry out. This law is a gun without bullets, a dead letter. The state can’t take thousands of people to prison for ideological reasons. There just isn’t such an animal. So the criminal sanctions are a strategic mistake. If we get to the point where Haredim decide to force the state to implement this law, the state won’t be able to. Other groups, such as Arabs or settlers who may face similar situations, will learn that the state isn’t able to enforce its rule.”

And the law is already creating blowback, worries Stern. “My calculated guess is that Haredim won’t take advantage of their right [under the new law] to leave yeshiva to work because their rabbis know that the entire integrity of the Haredi world is being tested.”

Now that they don’t have to study Torah to avoid military service, everyone is watching to see if avoiding military service was the original reason they were studying Torah in such numbers, Stern explains. “Rabbis will do their best to keep students in their studies, to prove that Torah study is an authentic Haredi impulse. We’re already hearing that some rabbis, such as [the leaders of the] Vizhnitz [Hassidic sect], are telling their young men not even to register with the army,” as all Israeli 17-year-olds are required to do, even those who receive draft exemptions. “That’s a criminal violation already today – not just in 2017.”

Stern’s dire worries are shared by none other than MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), the chair of the eponymous committee that wrote the law.

“Yedidia and I think the same. We think criminal sanctions will do the opposite of what they’re intended to do,” she told The Times of Israel. “We already see that it’s doing damage. I opposed it and tried to convince [committee members] for seven months not to put it in.”

Shaked still insists the law is “a good law, because it deals with this issue in stages, and if the Haredim reach the [draft] goals, there’s no forced draft.”

MK Ayelet Shaked leading the Shaked Committee, on February 10, 2014. (photo credit: GPO)
MK Ayelet Shaked leading the Shaked Committee, on February 10, 2014. (photo credit: GPO)

It’s up to Haredi leaders to decide if the law will lead to integration or a culture war, she says.

“Now everything depends on leaders of the Haredi community,” she believes. If Haredi rabbis, as Stern fears, oppose the new system as a matter of principle, “I think that’s a disaster. If they don’t [oppose it], it can succeed.”

Shaked insists that 5,200 annual draftees in 2017 “is not a small number.” In the first year, it means 5,200 will be drafted from a pool of as many as 60,000. But each year, an additional 5,200-plus will be drafted from a pool that only grows by some 9,000-10,000 annually. “By the time [today’s] 18-year-old Haredi [men] are 26 [in 2022], half will be drafted either to military or civilian service.”

That’s high enough, she believes. “The army doesn’t want them all, and in a Jewish state some have to study Torah – but not 105,000,” as is the case today.

Haredi leaders, too, have protested that the bill is unnecessarily insulting and ineffective.

“The Haredim are a huge public, perhaps as many as a million people,” says Benny Rabinovich, a veteran editor at Yated Ne’eman, the Haredi newspaper affiliated with the United Torah Judaism party, and the chief spokesman for the centenarian Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, considered the preeminent living Ashkenazi Haredi religious leader.

“In such a large group, naturally there is variety. Some are built to learn, some less. Some are more modern, some less. From the Eda Haredit and Neturey Karta [extreme anti-Zionist Haredi groups – HRG] to what we call the Facebook generation, the most modern, some of whom even served in the army themselves – all are united when it comes to this challenge against the most basic element of Haredi life, Torah study.”

The Haredi world is willing to compromise, Rabinovich insisted.

“As soon as a [young man] isn’t learning Torah and isn’t in the yeshiva, there’s no question he’s like any other citizen. There’s no question here, and all the religious authorities, including Rabbi [Elazar] Shach, have said so,” Rabinovich said.

Rabinovich is careful to note that problem with a military draft remain even for those who leave the yeshiva. “The army needs to build frameworks for absorbing these people. I’m not going to tell any Haredi young man to go to the army unless I know that I can be sure he’ll be in an environment that won’t force him to abandon his way of life.”

The current tensions between the Haredi and mainstream communities, he said, were due to the fact that the secular public “simply doesn’t accept the value of Torah study as the essential value of the Jewish people. It’s hard to explain this to someone who doesn’t see it. It really is. It’s a question of faith and a way of life.”

The result of that culture gap is an unfair demand on Haredi men.

“Only 20 percent of draftees are warriors who face real danger,” noted Rabinovich. “But the parents of those warriors don’t complain about the 80% of soldiers who go to the army in the morning in Tel Aviv and then return home at night to sleep. We’re asking people to understand that yeshiva students are like the 80%. Studying in yeshiva is not easy.”

Asked how the senior-most Haredi leaders see the path forward, he suggested the IDF “should become a professional army…This was an idea championed by MK Ofer Shelach himself until he went into politics. Instead of creating a professional army that gets paid decently, [secular leaders] want the army to be a sacred value around which to unite the nation. But there are other values. Without Torah, there’s no reason to fight for this place. Let’s all move to Switzerland.”

Now that the draft bill is the law of the land, “we will be tested,” said MK Shaked. Haredi leaders will have to choose to cooperate, she noted, while Economy Minister Naftali Bennett “will have to find work” for tens of thousands of Haredim released from yeshiva.

Yet for all the good that might be done if all sides agree to work together, the law does little to actually encourage such cooperation, say the critics hailing from all ends of the political spectrum.

Stern sums up the state of the debate: “There isn’t one expert in Haredim who says this [law] is a good idea. All the experts, sociologists, jurists, journalists, all say this is not a solution.”

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