Orthodox conscription bill knocked down by Knesset, as ministers plan new proposal

Meretz MK breaks coalition discipline in protest of Negev unrest and ‘racist and fascist’ Citizenship Law; High Court demands government advance clear draft rules

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

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk alongside Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk alongside Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

A bill aimed at lowering the age at which members of the ultra-Orthodox community can be exempted from military service failed to muster a majority during a Knesset vote on Monday, continuing a five-year legislative tug-of-war over mandatory Haredi conscription.

The legislation was brought to a vote despite the coalition being aware it likely lacked a majority, as the High Court demanded the government advance efforts to legislate clear rules on the recruitment of Haredi yeshiva students.

The government is working on a new national service bill and it will be brought for a vote in the coming weeks, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said in a joint statement.

A new legislative proposal of that kind would require the approval of the cabinet and the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, ahead of another Knesset vote.

Monday’s failed vote appeared to have been more of a stopgap to appease the court than a true attempt to pass legislation.

The vote failed 54-54, after Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi voted against, breaking coalition discipline.

MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi attends a Knesset committee meeting in Jerusalem on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“In protest, I voted today with my conscience, for Arab society, and against bills that the government wanted to promote,” Zoabi said in a statement

She cited “the conduct of the government, the Public Security Ministry, the Housing Ministry, the police and the JNF in the Negev against the Bedouin Arab citizens, [which] has become a mark of Cain of brutal and oppressive policy,” referring to recent unrest in southern Israel over controversial tree planting.

She also branded a bill okayed by the government on Sunday known as the “Citizenship Law,” which would bar Palestinians who marry Israelis from receiving permits to live with their spouses in Israel, as a “racist and fascist law.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police as they protest against the arrest of Haredi men who failed to comply with their army draft, in Jerusalem, December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In August, ministers approved the new draft plan, under which the exemption age would be 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 the 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 would 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 would rise to 23, where it would remain indefinitely, under the same conditions.

Under the proposed model, ultra-Orthodox men would 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.

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.

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)

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 five years, the defense minister has been requesting and receiving extensions, as the government 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.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a vote on the ultra-Orthodox draft bill, at the Knesset, January 17, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/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 said last year.

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.

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, when every eligible person would be covered.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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