IDF exemption for Haredim expires — but nothing’s likely to change, for now

In an apparent stunt, Gantz lets the order enabling ultra-Orthodox to avoid army service lapse, but expert says status quo likely to continue, because Knesset dissolved in December

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks past the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, July 22, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90/ File)
An ultra-Orthodox man walks past the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, July 22, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash 90/ File)

A national exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox men expired Monday, following Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s refusal to request an extension from the High Court of Justice. But the development is unlikely to change facts on the ground, according to an expert in the matter.

Despite Gantz’s opposition, the government on Monday night requested a delay from the court, which has yet to respond.

For decades, ultra-Orthodox Israelis have been allowed a near-blanket exemption from national service in favor of religious study (though small percentages do enlist), but in 2012, the High Court of Justice struck down the law permitting this arrangement as discriminatory. A new law was drafted to address the issue in 2014, but this too was overturned by the court three years later, demanding that the government pass fresh legislation on the matter, or else Haredi Israelis would be forced to enlist.

Since then, the government — through the defense minister — has been requesting and receiving extensions on this court order, as it failed to draft and pass legislation that would not also fall afoul of the country’s discrimination law and be overturned.

The issue of Haredi enlistment in the military has emerged as a third rail in Israeli politics. Governments have fallen and new ones have failed to be formed because of it. Fresh protests break out by more extreme elements of Haredi society each time the matter progresses or when an ultra-Orthodox man who refuses to even request an exemption gets arrested for failing to enlist.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with Israel police as they protest against the jailing of a Jewish yeshiva student who failed to comply with an army recruitment order in Jerusalem on January 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The prospect of mandatory military or national service is seen as utterly unacceptable by the majority of Israel’s Haredi population, while the majority of non-Haredi Israelis believe they ought to have to serve.

Though it was a leading issue in Israel’s April 2019 elections, the issue of Haredi enlistment has since faded to the background somewhat, but will eventually have to be addressed. Eventually, the High Court of Justice will stop issuing extensions and the government — whoever sits in it — will have to either craft new legislation that is fair enough to not be shot down again by the court or conscript the ultra-Orthodox.

The latest extension, which was issued in November, expired Monday. Last Wednesday, Gantz announced he would not seek another extension unless the government accepted his plan to address the country’s overall enlistment policy, which would require not only Haredi Israelis but also Arab Israelis, who are also exempt, to perform some form of national service.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks in a press conference at the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2021. (Screen capture)

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to bring the defense minister’s proposal to a vote at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Gantz carried through with his threat and told the court he would not seek an extension.

And thus on Monday, this decades-old exemption from service for Haredi men expired, meaning ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenagers were eligible for the draft, just as their non-Haredi counterparts are.

But the occasion passed without much of a brouhaha because this is all strictly in theory. In practice, nothing has changed.

“You didn’t see the traffic jams next to Tel Hashomer?” quipped Gilad Malach, the head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program, referring to the military’s main enlistment center. “The protests in Jerusalem?”

“OK, so that didn’t happen,” he told The Times of Israel over the phone.

According to Malach, Gantz’s refusal to request a new extension could therefore be seen as a mere campaign stunt, and not a particularly successful one, given the near-non-existent response to it.

Gilad Malach (courtesy of the Israel Democracy Institute)

The IDI researcher said the lack of any real-world implications to the move comes down to a number of legal and practical reasons.

For one thing, according to a prevailing interpretation of the law, Gantz did not actually have to request an extension from the court in order for the exemption to continue.

As the Knesset was dissolved in late December, under section 38 of the parliament’s basic laws, all legislation that is scheduled to expire within four months of the Knesset’s dissolution is automatically extended through the first three months of the next parliamentary session. According to Malach, courts would almost surely view this as applying to Haredi exemptions as well.

This was the basis for the government’s request on Monday night, which asked for an extension through to July 6.

Malach noted that a similar incident occurred ahead of the 2013 elections, after the High Court overturned the 2012 law. Then too, the exemption was extended.

Moreover, even were Haredi Israelis suddenly to be deemed eligible for conscription, this does not mean they would all have to show up at an enlistment center and don uniforms that day.

“The military is supposed to prepare itself [for the draft of the ultra-Orthodox]. But the military can take its time preparing,” said Malach, whose research has focused extensively on the issue of Haredi enlistment.

Even after performing the preparations necessary to conscript a large number of people, with specific religious and dietary restrictions, enlistments do not happen immediately. First, recruits must be notified.

“The [military] can send draft orders to Haredi Israelis of the relevant ages for September,” Malach said.

Asked when Haredi Israelis would practically begin enlisting in the IDF, Gantz’s office refused to answer, saying it was waiting for the High Court of Justice to make a ruling on the matter. The military did not respond to a request for comment.

Gantz’s plan

In addition to announcing he would not request an extension from the High Court of Justice, Gantz revealed his plan to resolve the matter once and for all.

It was, by and large, the same proposal as one created by an organization called Pnina, of which Gantz, Director-General of the Defense Ministry Amir Eshel, and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi were once members.

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)

Under the plan, all Israelis — Haredi, Arab, secular, religious, male, female Circassian, Druze, Muslim, Christian — would be required to perform some form of national service for two years. The military would have the first pick of recruits and everyone else would perform some other kind of civil service, working in the Israel Police, in Fire and Rescue Services, in schools, in old-age homes or something along those lines.

Malach does not believe that this plan is likely to go forward. There is currently little support for such a proposal among Israel’s Haredi population and little appetite for a knock-down-drag-out fight over the matter.

Even if there were, there is little chance that an interim government like the one currently in place would be legally permitted to institute such a dramatic change.

“It’s just not realistic,” Malach said.

Instead, he said, the more reasonable proposal is one produced by the Defense Ministry in 2018, which required 3,348 ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the IDF each year and another 648 take part in some kind of national service, a small increase from the most recent quotas. These numbers would increase, first by eight percent each year for three years, then 6.5 percent for another three years and finally by five percent for four more years, reaching 5,737 ultra-Orthodox military recruits and 1,107 national servicemen after a decade.

If the draft were to fall short of 95% of these targets, sanctions in the form of cuts to state funds allocated to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas would be put in place. The fines would increase each year the targets are missed.

Even this is a relatively modest proposal, which would still allow the vast majority of Haredi men to avoid national service. The government’s definitions of who is ultra-Orthodox — set not by lifestyle but by which schools they attend — also leaves a large degree of wiggle room.

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