Survey finds lowering the exemption age is not likely to reduce the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts to the IDF, however it will encourage thousands of ultra-Orthodox men to enter the workforce.
The current proposal for revisions to the Defense Service Law as it relates to the ultra-Orthodox sector will soon be brought before the Knesset for debate. We conducted a survey to examine the potential impact of a key clause in the bill –a clause referring to the age of exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox full-time yeshiva students. According to the existing law, the exemption age stands at 24, while the bill under discussion proposes lowering the age to 21 or 22. Between August 10 and August 17, 2020, we conducted a survey among a representative sample of 484 ultra-Orthodox young men aged 18–30, to explore the possible consequences of this proposed change.
Findings reveal that lowering the exemption age is not likely to reduce the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts to the IDF. At the same time—it will encourage thousands of ultra-Orthodox men to enter the workforce. For example, among ultra-Orthodox men ages 21–23 the numbers entering the workforce are anticipated to increase by between 20% and 33% (4,200 to 6,900 additional ultra-Orthodox workers).
Among respondents who served in the military, 80% indicate that they would have done so even if the exemption age were lower.
1. Impact of lowering the exemption age on ultra-Orthodox young men
Respondents were asked whether lowering the exemption age from 24 to 21 would lead ultra-Orthodox men to participate in vocational training programs or enter the workforce at a younger age. Differences among the respondents were significant: Around one-third (32.5%) "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that this would be the case; 22% agreed with it only slightly; more than one-third (37.5%) "disagreed" or "strongly disagreed"; and 10% did not know how to respond.
The response that lowering the exemption age would lead to earlier entry into the workforce was most prevalent among those belonging to the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community (41%), less so among those from the ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian community (32%) and the least among Sephardi respondents (20.5%) . Analysis of the data by respondents' self-identification on a scale ranging from "modern ultra-Orthodox" to "ultra-conservative ultra-Orthodox", 46% of those who identify as modern, agreed or strongly agreed that lowering the exemption age would result in earlier entry into the workforce, in comparison with only 20.5% of ultra-conservatives Among conservative ultra-Orthodox respondents, 32% agreed, and among those identifying themselves as 'between conservative and modern"—34.5%.
Thus, on the basis of these findings, we can conclude that lowering the exemption age could have an impact on around one-third of ultra-Orthodox young men, with particularly strong effects on those from Hasidic communities and from the modern ultra-Orthodox sector. Less impact is expected among ultra-Orthodox men from the Sephardi community and the conservative ultra-Orthodox sector.
2. The impact of lowering the exemption age on the individual level
When respondents were asked whether the proposed change would have had an impact on them personally, they overwhelmingly responded that it would have had no effect whatsoever (81.5%). The remaining 18.5% indicated that they would have begun working or enrolled in a vocational training program at a younger age, or would have declared their employment . On this question as well, a higher percentage of Hasidim indicated that lowering the exemption age would have affected them personally (25.5%) than Lithuanians (15.5%) or Sephardim (12.5%). Similar differences were found between those who identified as modern ultra-Orthodox (22.5%) or as between modern and conservative (21%), on the one hand, and on the other, those who identified as conservative (15.5%) and ultra-conservative (13%). Among respondents between the ages of 18–20 only 16% responded that the proposed change would affect them personally; among the 21-23 age group—20%,—among them about half, (9%) who responded that they would pursue academic studies or vocational training.
A higher percentage of respondents believe that lowering the exemption age would have a significant impact on ultra-Orthodox society as whole, than those who believe that it would have an impact on them personally. This difference may be attributed to respondents' tendency to justify the path they chose for themselves, rather than express their regret with regard to their choices. In light of this finding, it can be anticipated that lowering the exemption age would have an immediate impact on around 20% of ultra-Orthodox young men—that is, approximately 4,200 individuals aged 21–23 who report that in this case, they would pursue vocational training or academic studies at a younger age.
3. The ultra-Orthodox political parties and lowering the exemption age
A clear majority of respondents (62%) believe that ultra-Orthodox parties should act to lower the exemption age, while only 17.5% oppose this idea. Many respondents (20.5%) did not know how to respond to this question.
Of those who were in favor, more than half (53%) believe that this would do away with the need for ultra-Orthodox young men to secure a "deferral " (which in effect is an exemption) from military service; around one-third—that it would allow them to begin working earlier (32.5%), and 9% thought that both these arguments are correct.
Among those opposed to the ultra-Orthodox parties acting to lower the exemption age, the most common reasons given were that this would deal a blow to the yeshivot and kollelim or that it would have no impact (35% each), while only 13% argued that these parties should relate to those who study Torah.
A clear majority of respondents are in favor of the ultra-Orthodox political parties taking action to lower the exemption age, something the parties have refrained from doing until now. There are different reasons behind the support for this idea: on the one hand, to do away with the need for yeshiva students to secure a "deferral" from service; and on the other—to allow those who wish to leave the yeshiva world, to go out and work.
4. The impact of lowering the exemption age on conscription to the IDF or volunteering in civilian service programs
One of the questions of concern to Israeli policymakers is whether lowering the exemption age will reduce the numbers of ultra-Orthodox men entering military or civilian service frameworks. Among respondents who had served in either of these frameworks, 69.5% said that this step would not have influenced their decision to serve or volunteer, and thought it "certain" or "likely" that they would have done so anyway. By contrast, 30.5% believe that it is "certain" " or "likely" that they would not have served or volunteered.
Considerable differences emerge between those who served in the IDF and those who volunteered for civilian service. 52% of those who served in the IDF o are certain that they would have served even if the exemption age was lower, as compared with 31% of those who volunteered in civilian service. The percentage of those who considered it likely that they would have served or volunteered was similar in the two groups- 27.5% and 30%, respectively. By contrast, 5.5% among respondents who had served in the IDF reported that they would not have served, compared with 19% among those who volunteered for civilian service.
The majority of respondents who served in the military or volunteered for civilian service would have done so regardless of a lower exemption age, though there are considerable differences between the two groups: Almost all those who served in the IDF would have done so anyway, while among those who volunteered for civilian service, a sizable percentage would not have done so if the exemption age were lower.
5. Differences between respondents who served in the IDF and those who performed voluntary civilian service
There were also noticeable differences on other issues between respondents who served in the IDF and those who volunteered in civilian service programs. Of the former, 42.5% reported that they intend to undertake vocational training or academic studies, compared with just 21% of the civilian service volunteers. Similarly, 56% of those who served in the IDF indicated that their service prepared them for the world of employment, compared with just 29% of those who volunteered for civilian service. At the time of the survey, 8% of the respondents who served in the IDF were studying in a yeshiva or kollel, compared with 21% of the civilian service volunteers.
These findings bring to light significant differences between military and civilian service in terms of preparing participants for their futures. Military service provides a form of preparation for employment, and a considerable share of those who complete it subsequently pursue vocational training or academic studies. By contrast, civilian service does little to prepare participants for employment; subsequently, few of them enter vocational training or academic study programs, and a sizable proportion – of them go back to full-time Torah studies.