A committee on Thursday submitted for Knesset review the government’s plan for universal conscription, which, if passed, promises to significantly change the army’s relationship with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox citizens.
The Peri Committee’s bill would require ultra-Orthodox 18-year-old men and women to register for service. If they are engaged in full-time Torah study at the time, they would be allowed to defer service until age 21, at which point they would have to choose either to enlist in the IDF or register for national or civil service.
Those who defer their service would have to be registered at yeshivas whose student bodies are subject to regular government auditing. Yeshivas that receive state funding and register their students for service deferment would also be required to introduce vocational training into their curriculum.
Individuals who do not register for the draft would be subject to criminal prosecution, as would yeshiva heads whose institutions do not comply with the new law. The bill also mandates incentives and penalties for yeshivas according to their compliance with the registration rules.
The bill allows for 1,800 top Torah scholars to be entirely exempted from service per annum, far below the estimated 7,000-8,000 ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds who do not currently register each year.
The proposed legislation also features changes to the general conscription framework, including a shortening of service for males from 36 to 32 months, and an extension of service for females to 28 months, up from 24. The plan would also gradually extend and expand the Hesder yeshiva program, which combines Torah study with military training and would be available as an option for ultra-Orthodox recruits, as well
Most of the changes would roll out in 2016, including the criminal prosecution of individuals who do not register for the draft, allowing for a transitional period in which to build up the bureaucratic and physical infrastructure needed to implement the changes.
The bill sets gradual, increasing recruitment goals for the ultra-Orthodox, beginning this year with the goal of 2,000 registrations for the IDF and another 1,300 for national and civil service.
It also sets a 6,000-per-year recruitment goal for Israeli Arabs into national service.
The draft legislation is to be debated on Sunday at the weekly cabinet meeting, then passed to the Ministerial Legislative Committee, which will in turn pass it on for a preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum.
MK Uri Ariel, a member of the Ministerial Legislative Committee, said that a clause in the bill that seeks to lengthen the military service portion of the Hesder yeshiva track to two years (up from 16 months) was “completely opposite” to the coalition agreement upon which the current government was founded. He said that his Jewish Home party would oppose the bill until it is modified to conform with previous agreements.
Yisrael Beytenu also registered its reservations, saying that the proposed legislation did not address its demand for a quota for drafting Arabs.
“Although the bill introduced important amendments that reflect Yisrael Beytenu’s longstanding positions, including extending the length of service for Hesder yeshiva soldiers and setting criminal sanctions against those refuse to serve, the law still lacks significant components, both the sources of budget financing for the bill and with regard to minorities,” said Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Beytenu’s representative in the Peri Committee. “If the proposal will be voted on Sunday without these required changes, I intend to vote against the proposal as will all Yisrael Beytenu ministers.”
MK Yaakov Litzman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party said that the bill was out of touch with reality and assessed that its recommendations would not be implemented. “Anyone who talks about limiting the number of Torah scholars, targeting outstanding young scholars, and quotas is ignorant,” he told Channel 10, calling the committee recommendations “condescending.”
“The value of Torah study doesn’t need to be proven to anyone,” he added. “In every generation, we safeguarded the Torah scholars, and today we won’t have a situation where a person who wants to study Torah in Israel will find himself in jail.”
Litzman said it was striking that there were no ultra-Orthodox members on the Peri Commission, named for its chairman, Minister of Science and Technology Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid).
MK Meir Porush, also of the UTJ, called on the rabbis of the modern Orthodox Jewish Home party to oppose the bill. “It’s not too late,” he said. “Don’t let your hands damage the Torah and the holy yeshivas.”
Hardline NGO Im Tirtzu expressed support for the bill, calling it a “significant first step” in a long-term process to ensure equal service for all Israeli citizens, “regardless of religion, race, gender or sector.” By imposing mandatory service, the bill presented a formula allowing for ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis to enjoy increased social integration and presence in the labor market, the group said.
In February 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the Tal Law, which had granted sweeping de-facto exemptions from military or national service to ultra-Orthodox Israelis, was unconstitutional.
Following the ruling, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the Knesset would draft a revised, more equitable law, which ultimately was not approved by the Knesset. Following the January 2013 elections, Netanyahu formed the Peri Committee to draw up another universal service recommendation.
Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.