Ministers okay compromise to lower ultra-Orthodox IDF exemption age

Age to drop from 24 to 21 but will gradually rise back to 23, in an attempt to encourage draft dodgers to leave the yeshiva and get jobs sooner

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Ultra-Orthodox men walk outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men walk outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Government ministers on Sunday approved a plan to lower the age at which members of the ultra-Orthodox community can be exempted from military service, pushing through a compromise to potentially end one part of a four-year legislative tug-of-war over mandatory Haredi conscription.

Under the plan, the exemption age is to be immediately lowered to 21 from the current 24 for ultra-Orthodox Israelis. 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 this exemption age, the government hopes to spur those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.

In two years, the age will rise to 22, though an exemption from military service will be granted to members of the ultra-Orthodox community at age 21 if they perform some other form of civil training or “high-quality vocational training.” After another year, the exemption age will rise to 23, where it will remain indefinitely, under the same conditions.

Under the proposed model, ultra-Orthodox men will be permitted to complete their required service by serving for three months in an approved position — in medical care, education, elder care or another civic framework — and agreeing to perform service in the reserves afterward, in place of serving in the Israel Defense Forces for two years and eight months, plus reserves, as is required of other Jewish Israeli men.

“Due to all the anger toward the Haredim that don’t draft, they also forced them not to join the workforce until an older age. Today we are putting an end to this,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said during a government meeting that approved the plan Sunday.

Bennett hailed the move as “historic,” adding that “the integration of the ultra-Orthodox community in the employment market is a top priority for all of us.”

A group of ultra-Orthodox men wear protective face masks following government measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, as they walk in Jerusalem’s Old City, July 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The plan must still be okayed by the Knesset, where Haredi politicians in the opposition may try to keep it from becoming law.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has made ultra-Orthodox conscription a central plank of his secularist agenda, said the agreement is a step toward “a comprehensive outline” that will require national or military service for all communities in Israel, “secular and ultra-Orthodox alike, Jews and Arabs alike.”

“The purpose of the army is to protect the homeland but also to be the ‘melting pot’ that unites society. Our decision balances the melting pot with the needs of the economy,” he said.

The agreement on the plan Sunday addresses one part of a larger struggle over the shape of ultra-Orthodox conscription in Israel.

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.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men block a road during a protest against the jailing of a Jewish seminary student who failed to comply with an army recruitment order, Jerusalem December 8, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/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 four years, the Defense Minister has been requesting and receiving extensions as it failed to draft and pass legislation that would both pass muster with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Haredi coalition partners and also not also fall afoul of the country’s discrimination law. The current tenth extension is scheduled to expire on June 1, 2022.

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)

A committee comprising 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 stated.

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.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speak during the swearing-in ceremony for new President Isaac Herzog on July 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

On Sunday, Gantz said, the outline “is a bridge to the service outline that I intend to bring to the government in the coming months that will regulate the issue of service in Israel.”

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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