Proposal for Amending Ultra-Orthodox Conscription Plan

IDI puts forth analysis of why the proposed conscription plan for the ultra-Orthodox is problematic and offers an alternative approach

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The proposal for a conscription arrangement for the ultra-Orthodox sector, recently released by the Defense Ministry, is the product of a 20-year process in which the Knesset has been grappling with the issue of the military conscription of ultra-Orthodox men. The question has long been on the Knesset’s agenda as a result of a series of rulings by the Supreme Court, which directed the legislature to regulate the matter by law (1998) and overturned two laws passed by the Knesset (the Tal Law was struck down in 2012; Amendment 21 to the Defense Service Law was overturned in 2017). The fundamental principle cited by the Supreme Court in its rulings is that the conscription arrangement must reflect the importance of the principle of equality and give it concrete expression in the system for the military conscription of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel.

The conscription of ultra-Orthodox men is an issue of extreme importance, but it cannot be discussed in isolation from the model of the people’s army, which also needs to be examined and evaluated.

The current situation, which is not likely to change in the near future, claims to preserve the model of a people’s army, but in fact undermines its foundations. Only about half of each age cohort is actually inducted into the IDF, including around 72% of all Jewish males; and the number of those who do not serve in the military increases from year to year. So the real question now facing the Knesset is the extent to which the State of Israel can maintain the conscription model that has served as a guarantee of its security for the past 70 years.

The public debate revolves mainly on two incompatible solutions for the situation: on the one hand, are those calling for full equality in military service, so as to adhere to the model of the people’s army. On the other-- are those who assert that in the current reality Israel should switch to the model of a professional military. Both solutions would seem to be more stable than the current approach, but in fact neither is feasible in Israel today. Many believe that Israel simply cannot adopt the professional army model and achieve the quality and quantity of the manpower it requires. Nor is it realistic to expect to achieve the full model of a people’s army in the foreseeable future.

There are no magic solutions here. But given the imperative of holding on to the people’s army model in order to guarantee the country’s security in the future, out of recognition of the model’s social and national benefits, and given our assessment that full quality is not a realistic goal for the next few years, any solution needs to rest on the following principles:

First, we should aspire to and work towards equality. Even though full equality will not be achieved in the coming years, the point of departure for any discussion of the topic must be the need to aspire to achieve equality among all social groups in Israel and to make continuous and gradual progress towards this goal. This has also been the position of the Supreme Court in a long series of rulings.

Second, the notion of equality is in fact an equation, and both its sides must be addressed. The proposals for the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox are based on the correct assumption that the number of ultra-Orthodox men serving in the Israeli armed forces must continue to increase. An approach based on this assumption will aim at parity in the tasks that fall on the shoulders of the two groups, to the extent this is possible. Along with the support for increased participation of the ultra-Orthodox, all conscripts, ultra-Orthodox and others must receive compensation that expresses the people’s recognition of those who bear the burden in a situation of its unequal division.

Third, the discussion of the goals of the law must look beyond the number of those inducted for military service. Other important questions relate to the type of service performed by ultra-Orthodox conscripts, as well as to their participation in the labor force after military service and  throughout their lives..

Finally, any solution proposed at the present time must be enacted as an ad-hoc provision and viewed as a temporary measure, and as a step towards equality. The various groups must be offered incentives for military service, but in any case it will be necessary to review the effectiveness of the various solutions several years hence.

We do not believe that Defense Ministry’s proposed amendment of the Defense Service Law, in the version submitted to the Knesset, satisfies the basic conditions presented above.

The proposal would anchor in law, both conscription targets for the ultra-Orthodox and only mild economic sanctions if they are not met. These changes are crucial for turning the conscription arrangement from one based solely on good will, which was struck down by the High Court of Justice, into one that is rooted in targets that include incentives for meeting them.

Nevertheless, the bill’s fine print largely neutralizes the new elements that were not part of the previous law. As a result, it does not provide an adequate response to the aspiration to promote equality, and there is a good chance that it too will be struck down by the High Court. There are several reasons for this: The conscription targets will rise more slowly than in recent years. The civil service option will continue to be available and even be expanded, despite its problematic nature. The economic sanctions will remain on paper only for a number of years, and in any case are not directed at the appropriate target group—young ultra-Orthodox males (ages 18–23) who are candidates for conscription. Finally, there is no limit on the number of graduates of ultra-Orthodox educational institutions who are not themselves ultra-Orthodox but can be counted against the conscription target.

The bill currently before the Knesset totally ignores the other side of the equation—improving the conditions of those who do indeed serve in the military.  Such an improvement must include adequate compensation to those who complete the full term of service, and a further decrease in the term of service (which should be made possible by the induction of the ultra-Orthodox). The bill also sets too high a cutoff age at which ultra-Orthodox males are exempted from service; this will make it difficult for them to find jobs in the future. Finally, the proposed permanent long-term arrangement does not allow for any flexibility or adjustments in light of expected changes in the data over its lifetime.

In what follows we go into greater detail about the areas in which the bill is problematic and offer our alternative approach. A summary table is attached at the end of this document.

Military Conscription of Ultra-Orthodox Males

1. Conscription Targets

The Problem

Over the last six years, the number of ultra-Orthodox males serving in the IDF has been increasing at an annual rate of 15%. In none of these years, including during the crisis over the conscription law, did the rate fall below 10%. This steady rise took place even though the law, in effect did not include any provisions for economic sanctions which would enhance the ability to meet the targets. Given this history, the annual conscription target for the next five years must not fall below an increase of 10%. One of the underlying factors in this increase has been the rapid growth of educational frameworks outside the mainstream Haredi yeshivot and which send their graduates to the IDF. These frameworks have been burgeoning recently and can be expected to continue to do so in the coming years.

The Solution

The arrangement should stipulate a 10% annual increase in the conscription targets for the first five years of the arrangement. In the next five years, this could be reduced to 7-- 8%.
The table below displays conscription targets for the IDF for the coming years.

Proposed Ultra-Orthodox Conscription Targets for 2017–2022

Conscription Target (and percentage of potential conscripts) Potential Ultra-Orthodox Conscripts Not Potential Conscripts (16%) Estimate Average Number of Ultra-Orthodox Males in the Cohort (ages 18-23)  year
3,200 (39%) 8,170 1,560 9,727 2017
3,600 (42%) 8,610 1,640 10,254 2018
4,000 (44%) 9,160 1,750 10,914 2019
4,400 (45%) 9,780 1,860 11,636 2020
4,850 (48%) 10,020 1,910 11,933 2021
5,400 (51%) 10,660 2,050 12,828 2022

2. Civil Service

The Problem

Civil service for the ultra-Orthodox is not an appropriate substitute for military service, both on the normative level (as it violates the principle of equality), because of its demonstrated inability to meet the targets set for it, and because it is largely fictitious and fails to meet its basic goal. The High Court questioned the justification of allowing ultra-Orthodox men to do National Service in the classic civil frameworks and its being considered  as of equal value to military service, as well as the shorter duration of such service. Fifteen years after the law recognized the possibility of alternative civil service for the ultra-Orthodox, and 10 years after its actual implementation, it can be stated without doubt that it has failed to promote an equal sharing of the burden of service. After so many failures, any argument that the new law would improve the civil -service tracks and their oversight is naïve at best.

Within civil service there is a track for serving in a framework for civilian security service—in the Israel Police, in the Prisons Service, in Magen David Adom and Zaka, and other agencies—which the State views as fully on a par with military service. This service track is longer (two years) and better paid, but less than one-fifth (19%) of the ultra-Orthodox currently opting  for civil service sign up for such service.  

The Solution

The preferred solution is the elimination of alternative civil service for ultra-Orthodox males. Non-uniformed service can be developed in the framework of the Compulsory Police Service track, and parallel tracks in other agencies, run by the Defense Ministry: the young men will be formally inducted into the IDF but will do their actual service in other national agencies.

A second option would be institute substantial changes in the civil service system that would move such service closer to military service in terms of equality between the two  and which are anchored in law (and not merely in some declaration):

  1. Within five years, half of those performing civil service would be doing so in some form of civilian security service.
  2. Civil service for the ultra-Orthodox would be detached from the National Service program and turned into a separate unit under the responsibility of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, or the Public Security Ministry.
  3. Civil service would be possible only in national agencies (government ministries, local authorities, and so on) and not in nonprofit organizations.
  4. Given the lower value, in our eyes, of civil service, it would be preferable for ultra-Orthodox males over age 24 to enter the work force.

3. Who is Ultra-Orthodox? Who does the law define as Ultra-Orthodox?

The Problem

So that the conscription targets can be met, the law includes a broad definition of “ultra-Orthodox” and of who is defined as such when calculating if specified targets are being met.  The High Court justices noted as problematic the fact that the law deems anyone who attended an ultra-Orthodox educational institution for as little as two years to be “ultra-Orthodox,” even if he no longer leads an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. In fact, this category accounts for about a third of all of ultra-Orthodox men currently serving in the IDF. The inclusion of these “dropouts” under the rubric of “ultra-Orthodox” is a complex issue. On the one hand, they are not currently ultra-Orthodox; on the other hand, without the IDF’s recruitment effort, many of them would not have been done any form of service and would continue to rely on the deferments granted to yeshiva students. The current bill does not take into account of the problematic nature of this situation as cited by the High Court.

The Solution

Young men who attended an ultra-Orthodox educational institution for at least two years, even if they no longer maintain an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, will continue to be counted as ultra-Orthodox. But in order to prevent them from constituting a majority of those who serve, their proportion among those counted towards meeting the target set by the law will be limited to 33%—as is the current percentage.

4. Economic Sanctions

The Problem

The current bill proposes, for the first time, economic sanctions to be applied in case the conscription targets are not met—an essential tool for meeting the quotas. However, this tool does not apply exclusively to young men ages of recruitment age (18-23), rather to all yeshiva students (men). Since the sanctions would be relevant to men who are no longer of recruitment age - the sanctions ability to motivate recruitment is limited.

It is not clear why the budgets allocated for older full-time yeshiva students should be impacted if young ultra-Orthodox men do not serve. Furthermore, it is unlikely that a cut in the funding for those older students will encourage the young men to serve.

Additionally the economic sanctions are minimal and thus will not have any real effect.

As for the start date on which the sanctions clause will take effect, it is hard to understand why this tool will not be applied immediately, given that the conscription arrangement and targets have been in place for many years and there is no need for any preparation.

The Solution

If at least 95% of the target number is not met, the next year’s budget allocation for those enjoying military deferments (age 18–23) will be reduced by 33%. If the target is not met in the following year as well, there will be another 33% cut in the budget for those deferring military service, and so on, as long as the new law is in effect. This model will motivate Haredi community and its leadership to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the IDF. The yeshiva deans would be more likely to direct young men and older students who are not deriving real benefit from their studies to serve, in order to prevent economic sanctions which will hurt full time yeshiva scholars.

In this way the law will create, for the first time, a focused, logical, and systematic tool that provides an incentive to those with deferments to sign up for military service. This tool  would go into effect as of the next conscription year (2019). When the ad hoc provision expires at the end of the interim period, the effectiveness of these economic sanctions will be evaluated.

The Budget for All Yeshiva Students, as a Function of Compliance or Noncompliance with the Targets

Target not met in subsequent years Target not met one year (2019) Target met every year   
(NIS) (NIS) (NIS) Year
360,000,000 360,000,000 360,000,000 2018
240,000,000 360,000,000 360,000,000 2019
160,000,000 240,000,000 360,000,000 2020
107,000,000 360,000,000 360,000,000 2021
71,000,000 360,000,000 360,000,000 2022

5. The Permanent Arrangement

The Problem

Because the High Court ruled that the lack of  a permanent arrangement constitutes a substantive defect in the law, the bill before the Knesset also defines such an arrangement. But this long-term arrangement for the ultra-Orthodox differs substantially from the requirements  set for the rest of the population in a number of respects. First, only around 60% of ultra-Orthodox men would be inducted into the IDF (as compared to 90% of the general population). Nor would there be any service requirement for individual ultra-Orthodox men. Finally, the penalty for failure to meet the targets would be financial, rather than the criminal sanction that applies to everyone else. The High Court is likely to see this as a violation of the principle of inequality.

The Solution

The new law should be defined as an ad hoc provision for five years (through 2023), with its stated objective being the military conscription of a majority of ultra-Orthodox men. Should the targets be met, it will be possible to extend the ad hoc provision for another five years. When the ad hoc provision expires, at the end of the interim period, the effectiveness of the economic sanctions it prescribes will be reviewed. One issue to be investigated is whether there was a transfer of funds from other budgets that effectively nullified the sanction. A permanent law will be enacted if the targets have been met over the coming decade, taking account of the increased equality and the IDF’s conscription policy as of that date.

Despite the High Court’s past criticism of the lack of a permanent arrangement, it seems preferable to propose a time-limited model that moves forward towards equality rather than a permanent model that is not egalitarian. It would not be appropriate to propose a permanent solution to the issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription today, both because there is a process involved  and because the IDF itself is re-examining its conscription model. On this issue, as we have seen in the past, attempts at a long-term solution are likely to harm progress in the present.

6. The Age of Exemption from Military Service for Yeshiva Students

The Problem

The amendment to the Defense Service Law passed by the Knesset in 2013 granted an immediate exemption to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students age 22 and older. It also introduced a gradual rise of the exemption age. It currently stands at 24, and so too in the bill we are discussing. In practice, very few ultra-Orthodox men aged 22–24 enter the IDF: only 417 in 2017, less than 14% of all inductees. However, in order to “win” this small number, the State “traps” approximately 14,000 yeshiva students in the study hall for another two years. Setting the age for full exemption from military service at 24 has a significant impact on the ability of ultra-Orthodox men to begin college or university studies, vocational training programs, and find jobs—one of the goals of the legislation.

The Solution

Yeshiva students will continue to enjoy a deferment until age 22; and after this age yeshiva graduates will be able to begin higher or vocational education and go to work, with no restrictions. This age limit requires yeshiva students to spend many years studying (four years in yeshiva instead of 2.5 years they would have spent in the IDF), and might spur those who are not suited to such studies to opt for military or civil service. Lowering the age of exemption also fits in with shortening the term of military service. On the other hand, exemption at this age would make it possible for young ultra-Orthodox men to enroll in higher education frameworks and take on well-paying jobs, at a time when the burden of supporting a family is not yet so heavy. Those exempted from military service will be able to enlist in the IDF until age 28, as is currently the situation, but only in keeping with the needs of the IDF (about 300 ultra-Orthodox men opted to do so in 2017).

Improving the Conditions for those Who Serve

As stated, the bill currently before the Knesset relates only to the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, and not to improving the conditions for all servicemen and women. “Ignoring” those in uniform is not accidental or one-time. It reflects the absence of a general discussion of the issue of the how the people’s army model suits Israel in the twenty-first century. But this avoidance will not erase phenomena such as the decline in motivation to serve in combat units, to reenlist. Spending more than two years in uniform, and a willingness to sacrifice one’s life to protect the country and its citizens, merits the State’s social esteem and gratitude.

1. Benefits for all Servicemen and Women

The discussion of the conditions of servicemen and women must include various mechanisms to benefit conscripts and improve their circumstances, as a function of the length of their service and the risk it involves. These benefits are relevant both while they are still in uniform and after their discharge from active service.

The conscription law must include a basket of significant benefits in civilian life for those who serve their full term in the military, including, scholarships, and other benefits. The conscription bill should mandate a significant budget for this purpose and define the resources needed to cover the overall costs of the benefits basket for those who serve. The concrete decisions about the allocation of resources to the various groups who serve will be made  in complete  coordination with the defense system, so as to provide a satisfactory response to  the needs of those completing  compulsory military service.

2. Shortening the Term of Service for all IDF Conscripts

The Problem

The steady growth in the size of each annual cohort of ultra-Orthodox young men and the growing  number receiving exemptions because “Torah is their profession”  have increased the burden of military service for everyone else. Today, more than in the past, the IDF must deal with diminished motivation to serve the full term in uniform—which, currently stands at 32 months for men. The non-conscription of the ultra-Orthodox is a major obstacle to  shortening the term of service for all IDF conscripts.

The Solution

In the 2022 conscription year, there will be 2,500 more ultra-Orthodox servicemen than in 2016. The growth in ultra-Orthodox serving and the demographic growth of the age cohort – it would be possible to reduce the term of service for all soldiers to 28 months. This reduction does not apply to the modular service in special and combat units that the IDF is implementing as part of the process of decreasing the duration of service. Reducing it by another two months, after a further study of the IDF’s manpower needs, would make it possible for non-ultra-Orthodox males to begin their academic studies, vocational training, or working lives sooner and create a situation in which military service by the ultra-Orthodox effectively increases an equal sharing of the burden.

Summary Table: Comments on and Alternatives to the Defense Ministry’s Proposal

Topic Defense Ministry’s Proposal Problems with the Ministry’s Proposal Proposed  Solution
Ultra-Orthodox conscription targets for the next few years Annual increase of 8% for three years and 6.5% for the next three years The rate of growth is too small. An increase of 10% each year.
Proportion of civil service as included in the target figures Continuation of civil service and its expansion to include married men from  age 20 (currently 21) civil service is a scheme and not at all equal, is not supervised, and does not contributed to future employment Elimination of the civil service option for the ultra-Orthodox and development of the program for Compulsory Service in the Israel Police
      Second alternative: Allowing civilian security service for 50% of the conscripts, detaching the program fro the National Service framework and placing it under a separate government ministry, limiting the number of those serving and the agencies in which they serve, and allowing this option for those aged 21–24 only 
Definition of “ultra-Orthodox” under the Conscription Law  No limit on the inclusion in the quota of those who attended ultra-Orthodox institutions for only two years  The fear that most of the conscripts will not come from the ultra-Orthodox community but only from its margins No more than 33% of those counted towards the target can be “two-year students.”
Economic incentives for conscription A progressively larger reduction based on the extent of the failure to meet the targets The financial penalty does not focus on those who defer service and is too small (none whatsoever for the first two years, and only a few percent thereafter) Economic disincentives for failure to meet the targets that focus on those with deferments: a reduction of 33% in their funding. 
Permanent arrangement The law includes provisions for the long term The long-term arrangement is not equal and is likely to be rejected by the High Court (no mandatory conscription but only targets and economic penalties). Defining the new amendment as an ad-hoc provision, valid until June 2023, with the possibility to extend it for another five years
Age of full exemption from military service Setting the age of exemption at 24 This creates an obstacle to entering the labor market.  Setting the age of exemption at 22
Benefits for all servicemen and women Not mentioned The motivation for military service is declining. Across-the-board benefits to all who serve
Term of service for all  Benefits, but no reduction  There is no increased in equality of the burden with regard to the shortening of the term of service. An additional reduction of two months in the term of conscript service if the targets are met