Defense Ministry recommends sanctions on draft dodging yeshivas

Defense Ministry recommends sanctions on draft dodging yeshivas

Proposal for new law sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that if not met, would result in cuts to budgetary support

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Illustrative image of soldiers belonging to the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda unit. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative image of soldiers belonging to the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda unit. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

With a legislative deadline imposed by ultra-Orthodox parties fast approaching, the Defense Ministry published Monday night its recommendations for reaching “a durable, realistic and relevant arrangement” on a bill to formalize limited ultra-Orthodox conscription.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has long been a contentious one in Israel — revolving around a decades-old debate as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas, or seminaries, should be called up for compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population.

The new proposal sets minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the seminaries where they study.

“The number of recruits from the ultra-Orthodox community has increased 10-fold in the last decade. We should continue the efforts to progressively increase the amount of recruits to the IDF and National Service,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

“The IDF has a need for ultra-Orthodox recruits and the ability to absorb them in the best possible way for the army in a way that contributes to their continued employment in the work market,” it said.

The proposal specifically recommends “setting new goals for the IDF and National Service draft, annual increase in those serving, significant financial sanctions on draft dodgers and increasing benefits and remuneration for those who serve.”

If adopted, the target for 2018 would be at just below 4,000 recruits with that number increasing by 8 percent per year for three years, 6.5% for the three years after that and 5% for a further four years.

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

If the targets are not met by at least 95%, sanctions in the form of cuts to state fund allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas would be put in place, increasing each year the targets are missed.

“The principle of universal conscription is a key value and is necessary to preserve the IDF as the national state army,” the recommendations explained.

But the ultra-Orthodox community would still enjoy various exemptions from the regular conscription law, such as its recruits only being obligated to join the army from the age of 24, and not 18 like the regular draft.

The recommendations also create a possible loophole that could inflate the numbers of recruits by allowing those who left the ultra-Orthodox community before the age of 18 to be included within the targets.

The recommendations come ahead of a September deadline set by the High Court of Justice for the Knesset to re-legislate a previous exemption that the court disqualified.

In September 2017, the High Court of Justice struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined the principle of equality before the law. However, the court suspended its decision for a year to allow for a new arrangement to be put in place, giving the government the option to pass a new law.

Giving his coalition partners an ultimatum, Yaakov Litzman, the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said last week that if a proposal dealing with the community’s conscription is not passed into law by June 22, when the Knesset summer recess begins, the party will leave the government, likely spelling its untimely end.

Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is also chairman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, speaks to journalists after handing in his resignation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (unseen) on November 26, 2017, over a dispute regarding railroad maintenance on Shabbat. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / GALI TIBBON

The Defense Ministry said it hoped to create a “durable, realistic and relevant arrangement that will meet the needs of the IDF as an equal and national army, stand up to the Supreme Court ruling cancelling [the previous law] and receive the necessary wide approval in order to become law.”

Netanyahu told his Likud party’s lawmakers on Sunday that the legislative process on the bill would start as soon as the Defense Ministry’s recommendations were received in order to complete work on the legislation by the deadline.

Coalition sources told The Times of Israel that the bill would likely be presented to the attorney general this week and then to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation next Sunday, where they hope it will receive authorization to be fast-tracked through the Knesset.

After a similar ultimatum was made by Litzman’s UTJ during the Knesset’s winter session, coalition partners reached a last-minute deal to cooperate on the contentious issue in order to reach an agreement before the deadline. But a compromise agreement has been elusive, with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman vowing that his staunchly secular Yisrael Beytenu party will not fold in the face of demands made by its ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

The ultra-Orthodox parties have submitted two parallel bills on the military draft. The first, a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, would enshrine long-term Torah study as a recognized form of official service to the state in lieu of military service. The second bill would force the Defense Ministry to grant deferrals to yeshiva students, and refers back to the proposed Basic Law repeatedly in defending the arrangements. The ultra-Orthodox parties have long been opposed, on principle, to supporting Basic Laws.

According to the March deal, the ultra-Orthodox conscription bills would be shelved until the Defense Ministry presented its own recommendations for amendments, which would then be brought for a Knesset vote.

Recent months have also seen sporadic street protests organized by the so-called Jerusalem Faction, which refuses to have any connection with the military.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters clash with police during a protest against the arrest of a Jewish seminary students who failed to comply with a recruitment order, next to the army recruiting office in Jerusalem, January 4, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Although ultra-Orthodox Israelis are routinely exempted from enlistment, they are required to report to enlistment offices in order to sign a deferral of service, which Jerusalem Faction rabbinic leaders order their students not to do. The protests, usually focused in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, and Beit Shemesh, have led to violent clashes with police.

Ultra-Orthodox seminary students have been largely exempt from Israel’s military draft since then-defense minister David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 students from service in 1949 on the grounds that “their studies are their craft.”

Over the years, the High Court of Justice has struck down a number of changes to the laws regarding ultra-Orthodox exemptions from military service, finding them to be a violation of the principle of equality.

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