Ultra-Orthodox MKs chide 'humiliating, anti-Jewish law'

After previous failure, Haredi army draft bill passes its first reading

Meretz MK supports move after breaking with coalition 2 weeks ago; High Court has urged clear draft rules, but ministers still working on more comprehensive solution to tense issue

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a vote on the ultra-Orthodox draft bill at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 31, 2022. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, center, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a vote on the ultra-Orthodox draft bill at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 31, 2022. (Flash90)

A bill that would give earlier exemption from military and national service to ultra-Orthodox Israelis passed its first Knesset reading on Monday, two weeks after the coalition failed to muster enough support for a similar measure to overcome a tie.

The bill, which passed 51 to 48 and must pass two more readings before becoming law, is widely seen as a placeholder required by the High Court of Justice until a more comprehensive solution to the flashpoint issue is formulated.

Under the draft plan, the age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi Torah students would be lowered from the current 24 to 21. Many yeshiva students are thought to remain in religious study programs longer than they normally would in order to dodge the draft by claiming academic deferments until they reach the age of exemption. By lowering the exemption age, the government hopes to spur those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.

The Haredi population of Israel overwhelmingly opposes performing mandated national civil or military service, seeing it as a way for external forces to potentially draw away its members. Some extreme elements in the Haredi community have protested violently against military conscription.

Two weeks ago, a bid to pass the measure in the Knesset failed, when Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi voted against it, in protest against government policies toward Negev Bedouin, causing the bill to fail in a 54-54 tie.

This time, she voted with the coalition, saying she had reached understandings with the coalition on the matter and received a promise that it would not serve as a basis for a conscription law for the Arab community, much of which similarly shuns army service.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk along side Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Ironically, though the bill would ostensibly make life easier for yeshiva students, it has been fiercely opposed by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who claim it is a ploy to draw Haredim out of Torah studies and the Haredi way of life.

Many of them heckled Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other government members after the vote, calling out, “Shame on you.”

“You have turned Torah learners into criminals,” charged United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher. “The truth is known, there is no need for conscription, the military already has thousands of soldiers it doesn’t need. The biggest absurd is that those who decided whether Torah learners would be criminals are the Arab MKs.”

UTJ head Moshe Gafni called the vote “one of Israeli politics’ lowest points,” adding: “A dismal, humiliating, anti-Jewish, anti-Torah law. Now you’re bringing another law on national service, wanting to integrate Haredim in state apparatuses. We won’t integrate, we want to stay far away from you, you are people without ideology.”

“There’s no such thing as rights without obligations. We all have a responsibility for the fate of the country,” retorted Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who has long pushed for legislation to regulate the drafting of ultra-Orthodox into the military or civilian volunteer programs.

“This isn’t a perfect law, but it will lead to more ultra-Orthodox being recruited to the army, joining national service, entering the workforce and becoming part of the Israeli economy,” Lapid added in a statement.

Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas, left, and United Torah Judaism Yaakov Asher during a vote on the ultra-Orthodox draft bill at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 31, 2022. (Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the passage of the law was “the first step on the way to a comprehensive service plan I intend to advance, which will fulfill the security and social needs of the State of Israel for decades to come.

Bennett similarly welcomed the bill, saying that ultra-Orthodox entering the workforce benefited the entire Israeli society.

“Lowering the exemption age to 21 will allow young Haredim to acquire a profession at a logical age, work at quality jobs and provide for their families,” he added.

Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion sit in a field at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/ Flash90)

For decades, ultra-Orthodox Israelis have held a near-blanket exemption from national service in favor of religious studies, but in 2012 the High Court of Justice struck down the law permitting the arrangement, ruling that it was discriminatory.

A new law was drafted to address the issue, but it too was overturned in 2017 by the court, which demanded that the government pass fresh legislation on the matter, or else Haredi Israelis would be forced to enlist.

For the past five years, defense ministers have been requesting and receiving extensions, as the government failed to draft and pass legislation that would both pass muster with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Haredi coalition partners and also not fall afoul of the country’s discrimination laws. The current tenth extension is scheduled to expire on June 1, 2022.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a vote on the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, at the Knesset, January 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A committee made up of representatives of the prime minister, defense minister, and foreign minister is to be established to examine the current draft laws and to build a new outline “compliant with the needs of security, economy, and the society in Israel.”

It will submit its recommendations by November 2022, the Prime Minister’s Office said last year.

Gantz had previously demanded that lowering the exemption age also come with approving a plan he backed that would extend the national service requirement to both ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis, who are also legally exempt.

According to Gantz’s plan, all Israelis will ultimately be required to perform some form of national service after high school. Each year, the quota for the number of people required to perform national service would rise by 5,000, until, after six to eight years, every eligible person would be covered.

Emanuel Fabian and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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