Ultra-Orthodox Service in the IDF: An Ongoing Struggle

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The tension between the "military service for all" and "exemption for all" represents the tradeoff between the quest for equality and the existing political-social reality.

Flash 90

1. Introduction

The Tal Commission, the first comprehensive state-sponsored attempt to deal with the issue of military service by the Ultra-orthodox, held its inaugural session in July 1999. The Commission recommended a process-based approach that included promoting tracks of military and civilian service for the ultra-Orthodox, as well as legislation to anchor the deferment granted to most yeshiva students. Precisely twenty years later, in the summer of 2019, Israel faces a repeat election, triggered mainly by the political parties’ inability to reach agreement on a new conscription law. The pessimists will say that twenty years have passed and nothing has changed; the optimists will counter that during that time several models for military service of the ultra-Orthodox have been put in place, such as the Netzah Yehuda battalion and Shahar, and thousands of ultra-Orthodox men have served in the IDF. So the assessment of the situation depends on your point of view.

In this article I review the main challenges posed by military conscription of the ultra-Orthodox as well as the issue of the future of the “people’s army,” propose approaches for dealing with these challenges, and suggest a path towards a process-based solution that links these two issues.

2. The Challenges of the “People’s Army”

Mandatory military service in Israel and in other countries is based on the model of the “people’s army.” It first appeared in Revolutionary France, which introduced sweeping nationwide conscription, so that citizens could fulfill their obligation to the country. This first “people’s army” turned back the invading forces of the monarchists. In the course of the nineteenth century the model was adopted by most countries. In Israel, the people’s army model has been at the core of the national ethos, with the military serving as the melting pot for turning immigrants into Israelis, acting in domains that are not solely military, and promoting an egalitarian approach and social mobility for various population groups.

The people’s army model has been on the wane in Western countries, due to a declining sense of national emergency. This process began after the Second World War and led to the abolition of the military draft in countries such as the United Kingdom (1960) and the United States (1973). It peaked with the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, which was followed by the abolishment of conscription by the vast majority of European countries.

Even in Israel, the people’s army model has been on the decline in recent decades, for many reasons: the lesser probability of an all-out war, which has not occurred for 45 years; the limited military achievements in medium-scale conflicts (the wars in Lebanon and the operations in Gaza); the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan; the growing prevalence of an individualist and economic discourse; the demographic growth of groups that do not serve; and more. 

3. The Challenges Posed by the “Society of Scholars”

Today, ultra-Orthodox society is based on the model of a “society of scholars” (which in fact developed in Israel), in which most men study Torah for most of their lives and never join the workforce. Like the people’s army model, the society of scholars developed in response to a crisis—the emergency that confronted the ultra-Orthodox after the Holocaust and the birth of Israel—and provided an alternative to the ethos of military service and the people’s army.

But this model, too, has run out of steam, precisely because the ultra-Orthodox community stabilized and grew and is no longer in a crisis situation. Many of its members now show a growing interest in economic security, are adopting the leisure-time habits of the middle class, and demonstrate a stronger desire to integrate into society at large, while maintaining their ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. This is reflected in the sharp rise over the past fifteen years in the proportion of ultra-Orthodox men who hold paying jobs, from one-third to one-half; in the dramatic increase in the number who enroll in academic studies (12,000 in 2018); and in the significant jump in the number who do military service.

The observation that it is precisely periods of war and conflict that forge national and group resilience was made long ago by the earliest writers of “scientific” history. Both Ibn Khaldun, in his Muqaddimah, which focused on the Arab empires, and Machiavelli, in his Discourses that dealt with ancient Rome, showed how these empires were able to draw on inexhaustible energy in emergency situations, but were challenged, and eventually fell, when the situation returned to normal, in “humdrum days,” because they failed to prepare themselves for the new reality.

4. New Models for Meeting the Challenges of Military Service by the Ultra-Orthodox 

The various approaches to military service, by the ultra-Orthodox, falls on a scale from hardline to lenient.

(1) Service by all but a small minority: This approach can be seen in the conscription bill submitted by Yesh Atid, towards a situation in which all ultra-Orthodox men serve in the IDF, except for a limited number of matmidim (outstanding committed scholars).

(2) A Gradual increase in equality over time. This is the approach reflected in the current Defense Ministry bill, whose goal is military service by most ultra-Orthodox men within a decade. 

(3) Full exemption for all ultra-Orthodox men. A Finance Ministry proposal would grant all of the ultra-Orthodox a blanket exemption from military service at age 18. Former Education Minister Naftali Bennett has floated a similar proposal.

The tension among these approaches is that between the aspiration for equality, and sociopolitical realism. On the one hand, civic equality is the basis of a democratic society; the lack of such equality tears apart the social fabric and in the long run, undermines the possibility of a people’s army. On the other hand, ultra-Orthodox society’s opposition to military service by its men poses major practical difficulties that no conscription law, even if passed by a large majority of the Knesset, can overcome.

The famous drawing by cartoonist William Ely Hill, “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law,” in which the same face can be perceived as either a young woman or an old woman, demonstrates the difficulty of coping with these two demands—the egalitarian and the practical—at the same time. Like those who perceive only the young woman, those who insist on equality, see the lack of equality as the most acute danger for the future of the state; and like those who see only the old woman, the “realists” focus only on the impossibility of forcing military service on the ultra-Orthodox. I believe that the middle of the road approach, which is able to see both images—in our case, both the ideal situation and the actual situation—is the balanced and appropriate approach. 

It is not surprising that the two extremes, “service for all” and “exemption for all,” try to solve the problem in one fell swoop. By contrast, the middle of the road approach sees the challenge of ultra-Orthodox military service as one that must be addressed through a process that plays out over a number of years.

5. Different Models for Meeting the Challenges of the People’s Army

With regard to the crisis of the people’s army model, here too we can identify three major approaches: (1) “Business as Usual,” or, in military parlance, “ just because it’s a little hard-- you give up?”; (2) Making adjustments to the people’s army model, with the introduction of modular service models , as a way to preserve the core elements of the “people’s army” model; (3) a transition to a volunteer professional military, which would require a dramatic change in the current incentives for military service.

Here too the middle way is process-based and proposes making needed changes in the existing model. Both of the extreme positions are binary: on the one hand, no changes; on the other, a complete paradigm shift in the approach to conscription and military service. 

6. Implementing a Process-based Approach to the Challenges of Military Service by the ultra-Orthodox

I believe that the process-based approach to dealing with the challenges of military service by the ultra-Orthodox and of the people’s army can produce a plan which would garner public and political support, and which would also be legally tenable. The principles and main details of this plan are presented below.

The main principle underlying the approach to military service by the ultra-Orthodox must be gradual progress towards greater equality. To implement this principle, three steps must be anchored in law:

• Definition of a target for the number of ultra-Orthodox men serving in the military, to increase each year at a rate exceeding the community’s natural demographic growth 

• Institution of an economic disincentive for a failure to meet the targets—a cut in the state funds allocated to yeshivas that enroll young ultra-Orthodox men of military age (18–24)

• Repeal of the law if the targets are not met for three consecutive years.

An additional principle is meaningful service at a young age, accompanied by their entry into the skilled labor market. The current focus on the number who serve comes at the cost of the quality of service and its contribution to the country’s needs. So even though the benefit of civilian service by the Ultra-Orthodox is negligible, it continues to receive significant support based on the desire that “they do something.” The damage dealt by this approach is that most of the Ultra-Orthodox men who sign up for civilian service do so at a later age (over 23) and as a way to allow them to continue studying in the kollel (yeshiva for married men) instead of joining the workforce.

This principle should be anchored in legislation, with the following stipulations:

• The age at which ultra-Orthodox men receive a full exemption from military service should be set at 22. This drop in age (from the current age of 24) would enable those who are not suited for long-term yeshiva study to leave the study hall for professional training and employment at a younger age, before they are burdened by a large family to support.

• There should be a concomitant decrease in the enlistment targets, reflecting the lowered exemption age. The decrease would not be dramatic, because at present only a few individuals enlist at age 22–24 (400 out of the 3,000 who eventually enlist).

• Civilian service programs should be concentrated in security-related tasks and in government ministries. Study after study has shown that that the current model of civilian service in the community has little value and is in fact a sort of scam. Only if those who serve work in security or government institutions will they enjoy quality training and supervision, and only in such a case will their service make a meaningful contribution, both to them and to their surroundings.

7. Implementing a Process-Based Solution to the Challenges of the People’s Army

Ensuring the future of the people’s army also requires a process-based approach. The guiding principle for the foreseeable future must be retention of the people’s army model, but with modular service tracks. The main reason for holding on to the model is the anticipated deterioration in the quality of recruits following the transition to a volunteer professional military, a concern corroborated by many studies of similar changes in other countries. 

At the same time, the military must introduce changes in the term of service and the compensation paid to soldiers. These changes are essential in light of the decreased motivation to serve, the increasing size of each year’s draft cohort, the oversupply of human resources in some IDF units, the low risk of war, the price paid by the national economy, and the postponement of the careers of those who serve in the military. 

The revision of the people’s army model should be implemented in the following ways:

• A further reduction of the length of service for men to two years, as is the case for women

• A transition to modular service: most of the recruits will serve for two years, but in combat and technological units the service will be longer.

• Soldiers who will serve more than two years will get a significant compensation putting it on a level with what those still in uniform could otherwise be earning in the civilian labor market.

8. Summary

The driving force behind the aspiration for equality in service must come from two directions: bottom-up from the current situation of no military service to one of significant service for many Ultra-Orthodox men, primarily when they are still young; and top-down with a reduction in the length of service for all those drafted, along with substantial compensation paid to those who are required to extend their service. Putting these two issues into a single package could trigger a significant leap forward towards greater equality, for the benefit of those serving in the IDF, the economy, and Israeli society as a whole.