The Government Bill for the Exemption of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Men from IDF Service: A Brief Guide
The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Conscription bill, if passed into law, would in effect, allow Haredi men to totally avoid military service.
The ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Conscription bill, if passed into law, would in effect, allow Haredi men to totally avoid military service. The Government is currently putting the final touches on the bill (as an amendment to the Defense Service Law). Although an official text has not yet been released, it is clear that it will set in stone the policy exempting ultra-Orthodox young men from service in the IDF. In addition, the age of exemption from service, at which time Haredim can leave the yeshiva and begin working, will be lowered from 26 (as today) to 21–23 (although there is still disagreement on this clause). In parallel, the Government is planning major changes that would for the first time include a differential service component int the compulsory service model. The term of service for rear-echelon troops and those in less-essential jobs would be reduced to two years (today it is 32 months); those in combat or technology units would serve longer, up to 32 months, with their salary raised to about NIS 6,000 a month, in line with the national minimum wage. It has also been reported that discussions are under way about granting additional benefits to those who serve, including in housing, higher education, and other areas, upon completion of service.
It is true that when Israel became independent, it was agreed that yeshiva students would be exempted from military service; however, at the time, this applied to only a few hundred young men. Today the ultra-Orthodox constitute 13.5% of Israeli society, and 18% among those of conscription age. The community doubles in size every 16 years. In 2021, 138,367 men were enrolled in post-secondary yeshivas (for those age 18 until marriage) or kollelim (yeshivas for married men) in Israel. The fact that Haredim do not serve has long posed a challenge both to the military and to the ethic- shared by most Israelis- of universal military service and a “people’s army.” In recent years, there have been attempts to promote military service among Haredim, but they have been only partially successful. The numbers in IDF service began to grow in 2007; in 2015 the number peaked at 2,145. Since then, the numbers have fallen, to only roughly 1,200 in 2019–2020 (10%–11% of the annual cohort of draft-age Haredi men). As noted above, however, experience shows that if there are no target numbers for service and sanctions for not serving, the number of conscripts will plummet. The bill now being finalized flies in the face of the ethos of social solidarity and a people’s army so deeply entrenched in Israeli society, and would lower the probability of at least some Haredim, serving in the IDF to a minimum
No. Cutting back the duration of mandatory service and increasing soldiers’ compensation, especially for those who choose to serve for a longer period and those in life-threatening and essential units, is the fair thing to do. This would enhance the balance among different groups of soldiers, especially if they receive the bulk of the benefits while still in uniform, rather than after discharge. All the same, this would not solve the problem of inequality between those whose freedom is curtailed when they are compelled by law to serve, and those to whom this obligation does not apply. What is in effect a total exemption from military service for the Haredim would make an unfair situation even more unfair. This blatant inequality cannot be wiped out by means of direct economic benefits (higher compensation for those who serve) or indirect measures (various benefits after the completion of service). Most Jews in Israel believe that Haredi men should shoulder more of the burden of military or civilian national service as a basic civic duty to do their part in bearing the security and social burden (other issues arise with regard to Arab citizens but they will not be addressed here).
For the past 20 years the Supreme Court has been urging the Knesset to enact a conscription law, while striking down proposals that were inequitable and will likely do the same with regard to the proposal currently on the table. In 2017, it nullified Amendment 21 to the Defense Service Law, passed in 2015, on the grounds that its exemption of the Haredim failed to adequately reflect the principle of equality.
While it is true that there will never be full equality, there is a difference between throwing in the towel on the idea of drafting the ultra-Orthodox, as the current proposal would do, and previous proposals which set annual target numbers for their progressively increasing conscription, along with economic sanctions for failure to meet these targets. The new legislation should also aspire to equality and a gradual increase, to the extent possible, in the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts, setting defined incremental target numbers and with clear economic sanctions with regard to budget allocations to yeshivas and a focus on students of conscription age. All this needs to be accomplished with maximum coordination and cooperation with those among the Haredi leadership who are more pragmatic, some of whom understand that many of those registered as fulltime Torah students are not in fact frequenting the study hall (with the latent dropout rate estimated at 15%–25%) and would actually like to serve in the military, to contribute to society, and take steps towards their own personal development. These young men and others who might prefer to enlist in the military, would provide the IDF with additional quality recruits and alleviate some of the current inequality.
Lowering the exemption age (the age until which a Haredi man must remain a fulltime yeshiva student and not hold a job if he wishes to avoid conscription) is important and is the right thing to do. In addition to the need to reduce the blow to equality in bearing the burden of military service, there is an essential and immediate need to increase the rate of employment among young Haredi men. The current age of exemption, 26, prevents many of them from acquiring a vocation and getting a job before then. Because Haredi men marry at age 22 (on average) and are fathers by 24, they are rarely able to acquire a college education or vocational training; and the need to support their family pushes them into low-paying jobs. Israeli society loses twice – both in terms of military service and in integration into the workforce. Today only 53% of Haredi men are employed, as against 88% of other Jewish men; their income from work is only 53% that of their non-Haredi peers. Granting them an exemption at an earlier age would make it possible for many to participate in a vocational training program or in academic studies and would better the situation of Haredi households—and, consequently, of the Israeli economy.
A survey among young ultra-Orthodox men ages 18–30, conducted by the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute in 2020, found that between 20% and 33% would leave the yeshiva and find a job if the exemption age were lowered. Potentially, this would mean an increase of about 10,000 Haredi employees by 2030 and an estimated increment of 15 billion NIS to the GDP. Note that the economic effect of lowering the exemption age might be undercut and fail to produce the desired result if the State, while on the one hand provides incentives to encourage Haredi men to join the workforce, at the same time defeats the entire idea by means of a dramatic increase in budget allocations to yeshivas and kollels and cancelling the requirement that Haredi schools include core subjects (math, English, science, etc.) in their curriculum as the prerequisite for receiving full public funding
Lowering the exemption age to 21 is not expected to have a significant negative impact on the number of Haredi men who serve in the IDF. This conclusion follows from the average age of Haredi recruits today: Most are below age 21 (in 2017, 70%). In addition, a survey conducted by the Viterbi Family Center in August 2020, revealed that 80% of young Haredi men who had served in the IDF report that they would do so again even if the exemption age was lower. IDI researchers found that those who enter the IDF by age 21 prefer to serve in combat units or combat-support roles; their motivation to serve is linked mainly to the opportunity for personal and social development and empowerment. The older ones prefer technology units, in the hope of acquiring valuable employment skills for the future. Neither of these motives would be undermined by lowering the age of exemption.
Haredi leaders are well aware of the younger generation’s pressing need to support their families; some are pushing to lower the exemption age to 21. What is more, in the 2020 survey among young Haredi men, 62% believe that the Haredi political parties should work to achieving this goal; only 17.5% are opposed.
The IDF needs quality personnel in combat units, combat-support positions, technology units, and rear-echelon staff units, who come from all sectors of Israeli society. The increase in the number of women serving in combat units and the constant formation of new units is evidence of this. Furthermore, the issue relates not only to the IDF’s personnel needs, but also to the strength and cohesion of Israeli society. If we aspire to social solidarity and a sense of mutual responsibility, equality in bearing the burden of military service is a must. It is unthinkable that the freedom of some young men and women is limited, and they must enter the armed forces and sometimes- risk their lives, while others sit quietly at home. Remember what Moses said when he suspected that two tribes were trying to avoid their responsibility to the rest of the nation: “Are your brothers supposed to go to war while you stay here?” (Numbers 32:6).
We must continue to develop creative approaches regarding the best ways to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the military. In addition, it is essential to ensure that respect for their needs does not come at the price of a disproportionate infringement of the rights of others in the IDF, including women-who are now serving in more diverse roles. Then too, the expected increased in compensation and ways of showing appreciation to those who serve can be expected to be a major incentive for young Haredi men to enlist in more strenuous service tracks. In addition, the military and civilian service systems could encourage enlistment by improving the ways in which they teach skills and provide vocational training at various stages of service.
The current situation allows Haredi men to serve in civilian National Service frameworks- in security-related agencies, government offices, and welfare services for their community. Despite many years of efforts on this front, only a few hundred Haredi men do so each year (570 in 2021). Most of those who opt for positions that serve the community itself do not- in fact- do meaningful work. Forcing the Haredim to participate in National Service frameworks would exacerbate their resistance, in the same way as forcing them to serve in the military; the fear is that they would find fictitious service tracks that benefit no one but would place a heavy burden on the State budget. All the same, it is obviously important to encourage and incentivize young Haredi men to volunteer for productive civilian National Service positions in security, emergency, and rescue units (such as the Israel Police, Magen David Adom, Zaka, and United Hatzalah), and in other supervised national programs, where they could contribute to society while reaping the benefits of such service towards finding their way into the job market and integrating into Israeli society as a whole.
A practical and constitutional proposal to advance the recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox must include two components: One dealing with the promotion of equality, and the second- an economic component. To uphold the commitment to equality in military service- the amendment to the Security Service Law must include (similar to the 2021 bill) conscription targets for the number of ultra-Orthodox servicemen. In case of non-compliance with the targets, the law must also include a sanction in the form of a cut in the budget of the yeshivas in which ultra-Orthodox youth study. A combination of these two tools is expected to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox serving in the army and in national-civilian service frameworks. . To complete the proposal, civilian or national service for the ultra-Orthodox should also be expanded to include security services and government agencies, and not only within the ultra-Orthodox community. This will ensure that the service is meaningful and makes a real contribution to society, as well as to the individual who serves.The government's proposal to honor the servicemen by providing them with increased compensation and perks also helps to complete the picture, although it does not go to the roots of the thorny issue of inequality between those who serve and those who are exempted.
From an economic perspective, the exemption age should be lowered to 21 in order to integrate ultra-Orthodox individuals into high-quality employment at a young age. The economic issue must be examined comprehensively and subject to other government actions. Economic incentives for ultra-Orthodox men to enter the workforce should also include negative incentives such as making discounts contingent on the exhaustion of employment capacity, a limitation of the eligibility period for widower allowances and the requirement of core “secular” studies as a condition for full budgeting of ultra-Orthodox educational institutions.
A combination of these tools will promote equality in sharing both the security and the economic burden for the benefit all the citizens of the State of Israel.