Bennett floats alternative to ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill
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Bennett floats alternative to ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill

New Right chief says that, rather than serve, seminary students should be encouraged to study, work at younger age; claims plan could prevent ‘economic collapse’

Then-economics minister Naftali Bennett visits a center in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak where religious men and women are trained in math, English and other core subjects not taught in ultra-Orthodox schools and seminaries, on April 2015, 2013. (Assaf Shilo/Economy Minister/Flash90)
Then-economics minister Naftali Bennett visits a center in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak where religious men and women are trained in math, English and other core subjects not taught in ultra-Orthodox schools and seminaries, on April 2015, 2013. (Assaf Shilo/Economy Minister/Flash90)

Former education minister Naftali Bennett on Tuesday floated an alternative plan to legislative proposals aimed at raising conscription rates among ultra-Orthodox, calling instead to encourage them to learn a profession and join the workforce.

The key plank in the proposal from Bennett’s New Right party would lower the age until which ultra-Orthodox must remain at a religious seminary to be exempt from mandatory military service from 24 to 21.

“When they are released [from yeshiva] at age 25 they are already married with three-four kids, have no chance of a professional education and are sentenced to a life of support from charitable funds and familial assistance,” Bennett wrote in a Facebook post.

Bennett said his plan would allow ultra-Orthodox Jews not interested in religious study to instead study and work, providing a boon to the Israeli economy.

“During these years, they can learn a profession, go to work and create tax revenues for all of us,” he said.

Illustrative: Soldiers in the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox ‘Netzah Yehuda’ unit at the Peles Military Base in the northern Jordan Valley, August 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

While the ultra-Orthodox have historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from mandatory military service, the High Court of Justice in 2017 struck down a law exempting members of the community from serving in the Israel Defense Forces, forcing lawmakers to draft new legislation governing their enlistment.

A failure to pass a Defense Ministry backed-bill formalizing exemptions to conscription was the ostensible reason for the calling of early elections late last year.

In May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed his failure to assemble a coalition after the elections on disagreements over the bill among his potential coalition partners.

Noting high ultra-Orthodox birth rates and their growing share of Israel’s population, Bennett warned of major economic consequences if more of them are not integrated into the workforce.

“If they don’t go to work the Israeli economy will collapse. There is no situation like this anywhere in the world,” he said.

In apparent anticipation of criticism of his plan, Bennett said “the proposal is not fair, but it is efficient.”

He also called for raising the salaries of conscripted soldiers as “proper compensation” for those who serve in the military, as well as for the creation of religious tracks for ultra-Orthodox who do want to enlist.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against the military draft. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Bennett said he expected his plan would be opposed by “extremists on both sides.”

“There are ultra-Orthodox extremists who want to keep scores of young men in yeshiva — even if in practice they aren’t learning Torah — and relegate them to a life of poverty, as long as they stay in yeshiva without a choice,” he said.

Bennett argued that the “anti-ultra-Orthodox extremists,” on the other hand, “prefer there be someone to attack day and night… even though they know the IDF is not at all prepared to absorb thousands of ultra-Orthodox because of their [special religious] requirements.”

The release of the proposal comes as Bennett launches his campaign for general elections on September 17, after New Right failed to secure the minimum number of votes in April’s elections to enter the 120-member Knesset.

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