Ministers approve new universal conscription law

Bill passes 14-0, with four abstentions, before heading to Knesset; mandates military or civil service enlistment for most ultra-Orthodox by 2017

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Illustrative photo of soldiers from Nahal Haredi, an ultra-Orthodox battalion in the Israel Defense Forces (Abir Sultan/Flash90, File)
Illustrative photo of soldiers from Nahal Haredi, an ultra-Orthodox battalion in the Israel Defense Forces (Abir Sultan/Flash90, File)

A new draft bill paving the way for thousands of ultra-Orthodox men to be enlisted in the army was approved by the ministerial legislative committee Sunday, marking a key step in the battle to expand universal conscription to Haredi Jews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said ahead of the vote that the bill was an important step in the right direction, and would lead to the further integration of ultra-Orthodox men into the workforce and society.

“This is a historic day,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid told his Yesh Atid party at its weekly meeting ahead of the vote. After the bill completes its passage through the Knesset and takes force, he said, “there will be real equality.”

Lapid said it took the coalition just three and a half months to deal with an issue that had brought down governments and ended political careers. “We’re making historic change,” he declared.

The bill passed with 14 ministers voting in favor and four abstaining: Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Yair Shamir, Sofa Landver and Uri Ariel.

It must now go before the Knesset before being signed into law, but the imprimatur of the legislative committee means it has the coalition’s backing and is likely to pass in parliament.

The new law is “a significant step toward integrating the ultra-Orthodox community” in Israeli society, Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) said before the vote. The bill, he said, was the compromise needed to address the sensitive matters at hand.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, while critical of the motion, nevertheless said it would support it. The bill was a compromise, a statement by the party said, and as such was “partial and flawed.”

Ariel mentioned some changes in the bill that passed — not forcing girls to enlist, raising the number of exceptions for Torah prodigies from a few hundred to 1,800, and allowing men to study for three years until the age of 21 before being drafted — that he called positive developments that his party had written in. He noted, though, that the process of perfecting the bill wasn’t over, though he hoped it would be shortly so it could be written into law.

In contrast to the coalition members, Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) mourned the decision, saying “[today] is a sad day for ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Today will be remembered as a black day in the history of Jews in Israel.”

Porush said the Jewish Home party had “burned the house” it claimed to protect. He also blamed the government for harassing the ultra-Orthodox, saying its actions were “on the border of persecution and cruelty.”

The proposal, drafted by the Peri Committee, gives the ultra-Orthodox population a four-year transition period, at the end of which all but a select 1,800 students will serve either in the Israel Defense Forces or national service.

According to the plan, which in May was welcomed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and called a “historic moment” by Lapid, by 2017 most ultra-Orthodox men will no longer be able to claim exemptions from military service based on yeshiva study.

The bill has been vociferously opposed by sectors within the ultra-Orthodox community, many of whom have vowed to fight the new law and go to jail rather than serve in the military. Community leaders fear enlistment in the army will make it harder for the ultra-Orthodox to keep a strict interpretation of Jewish law and will cause unhealthy mixing with the secular population.

But lawmakers and others say drafting ultra-Orthodox is essential to integrating that community and will also help “equalize the burden” of military service across Jewish Israeli society.

Until last year, the ultra-Orthodox could claim a exemption under the Tal Law, which deferred service for yeshiva students.

However, the law was declared unconstitutional last year, setting politicians and military brass scrambling to come up with a solution for drafting Haredim into the army.

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