The IDF and the Ultra-Orthodox

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As the Knesset prepares to vote on the "Draft Law" designed to regulate the service of ultra-Orthodox men in the Israel Defense Forces and create a more equal share of the burden of military service in Israel, Dr. Haim Zicherman surveys the current situation within Israel's Haredi community.

As of the start of 2014, most Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men who are citizens of Israel do not have to serve in the Israel Defense Forces as long as they are fulltime yeshiva students. Over the last decade, however, the fact that Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) are not subject to military conscription has become a burning issue in Israeli society. In this article, I would like to focus on two points: first, why the ultra-Orthodox avoid military service, and second, the changes that have been taking place in this area in recent years.

When Israel was newly independent, compulsory and almost universal military service was instituted. In the Jewish sector, exemptions were granted to men who were enrolled in ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and to all religiously observant young women. For the former group, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who was also defense minister, initiated a special arrangement that deferred the conscription of the several hundred yeshiva students who were involved at the time, most of whom came from the veteran ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem. Ever since then, most ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and receive annual deferments as full time Torah scholars. Members of the second group, religious young women, are exempted from military service on the basis of their own sworn statement that they are observant.

Over the years, the number of yeshiva students receiving deferments has increased. In 1998, when the number had reached 30,000, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Knesset would have to enact legislation authorizing the IDF to issue such deferments. In the wake of this ruling, the Tal Committee was established the next year. After long deliberations, in 2002 the Knesset passed what came to be known as the “Tal Law,” which stipulated that ultra-Orthodox men who chose to study Torah full time could defer their military service for as long as they were enrolled in their yeshiva, with no upper time limit. However, if they left the yeshiva, they would be subject to conscription.

The Tal Law was enacted in 2002 as an ad hoc provision for five years. In 2007, however, the Knesset voted to extend its validity for another five years, through 2012. In February 2012, the High Court of Justice ruled that the Tal Law could not be extended again, because of its constitutional flaws. The Court ruling came against a double background: first, growing public demand that the ultra-Orthodox be subject to compulsory military service like other men, so as to equalize the burden of military service; second, the demand by the IDF, on the one hand, and by senior government economists, on the other, to incorporate the ultra-Orthodox in the defense forces and in the Israeli economy.

In the absence of a statutory basis, the defense minister lacks the authority to defer the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men. Since 2012, the Knesset has been working on legislation that will regulate this matter. After two years of deliberations, the Knesset is now finalizing a bill that will become law in a few days.

The bill includes provisions for several different time periods. As soon as the bill is enacted, all ultra-Orthodox men above age 22 will receive an immediate, permanent exemption from military service. The Knesset expects that this will add 23,000 ultra-Orthodox men to the labor force—men who, as fulltime students, were previously unable to work legally.

For the next three years, the Defense Minister will continue to defer the service of full time yeshiva students, with no restrictions. During this period, the ultra-Orthodox community, for its part, will be expected to meet the conscription quotas set by the Government in the past (3,300 conscripts in the coming year). But meeting or failing to meet this target will have no practical implications.

In the long term, starting in four years, the Knesset bill will make the Defense Minister’s authority to issue deferments conditional on the fulfillment of conscription targets; that is, if the number of ultra-Orthodox men beginning their military service each year exceeds the annual target (which will be 5,000 conscripts four years from now), the Defense Minister will be authorized to continue to defer the service of full time yeshiva students. If the target is not met, however, the Defense Minister will be allowed to grant only 1,800 deferments each year; all other young Haredim (around 75% of each age cohort) will be expected to enlist in the IDF at age 21, or face imprisonment as draft dodgers, like every other young man who refuses to serve. These are the "criminal sanctions" that have been the subject of debate during recent months, with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party insisting on their inclusion.

Most experts, however, believe that these criminal sanctions are an empty threat. Why is this so?

First of all, the law would create a number of safety valves intended to significantly increase the prospects of meeting the conscription targets. The main safeguard is that the law leaves the determination of the future annual conscription targets to the Government, which means that changing the conscription targets would not require the Knesset to amend the law.

Second, there is no practical and legal way to select the 1,800 elite students who would receive deferments. To date, all the experts who have tried to find a solution for this conundrum have thrown up their hands in despair. The bill that is making its way through the Knesset also fails to solve this problem, and drops it in the Defense Minister’s lap. The Defense Minister, who has on more than one occasion expressed his dissatisfaction with the model that is being developed, has let it be known that he has no idea of how to select these students. In the absence of a definition of who is an elite student and who is subject to conscription, how could criminal penalties be imposed on anyone?

Third, even if the conscription targets are not met, and even if some mysterious procedure is found for selecting the elite scholars, it is clear to all that a Jewish state cannot criminalize the lifestyle of yeshiva students whose sole desire is to study Torah. Making lawbreakers of an entire minority sector because of the religious faith and outlook of its members is a step that would be hard to justify.

So it is clear that the law’s main threat is actually toothless and devoid of practical meaning. What, then, has Yesh Atid gained by its stubborn insistence on including criminal sanctions in the law, even though it knows that they are unenforceable?

For the politicians, the main benefit of including criminal sanctions is on the declarative and intellectual levels. For the first time, the Knesset is asserting that the number of Torah scholars should be limited. For the first time, the Knesset is proclaiming that Torah study is not of equal value with military or civilian service. For the first time, the Knesset is declaring that Torah study could constitute a criminal offense. This statement is unprecedented in Israel’s history and has far-reaching symbolic importance.

The decision of the ultra-Orthodox leadership to call for a mass prayer rally is its response to the proposed law. In countering the attack on Torah study, the masses are proclaiming that the Torah is the life’s breath of the Jewish people.

Why don’t ultra-Orthodox men serve in the army? In brief, there are three main reasons.

  1. The role of men in ultra-Orthodox society is to study Torah, and this requires that they be totally free of all other burdens.
  2. The spiritual defense of the Land of Israel is a duty incumbent upon those who study Torah.
  3. There are fears that the ultra-Orthodox identity of conscripts may be negatively impacted by military service.

The first reason focuses on the task that is seen as the destiny of ultra-Orthodox men, especially those of the “Lithuanian” (non-Hassidic) sector: to pass on the torch of the Oral Law to future generations by means of arduous, Sisyphean study that continues for their entire life. Any other activity is considered to be a waste of time and is set aside so that a young man’s mind and time are free to study the Torah. This is where the ultra-Orthodox approach diverges from that of the Religious Zionists, who believe that Torah study must be integrated into daily life, and who created the model of the hesder yeshiva, in which young men combine Torah study with military service.

The second reason is essentially spiritual and universal: the defense of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel has two levels—the physical and the spiritual. In the religious perspective, some people protect the body with weapons, while Torah scholars protect the spirit in addition to protecting those who protect the body. Just like the Israel Defense Forces has drone operators who sit in air-conditioned rooms controlling unmanned aerial vehicles and no one complains that they are not risking their lives or taking part in the war effort, so too yeshiva students are seen as operating spiritual UAVs that have a decisive impact on the war and national defense.

The third and most important reason is identity-related. There is a real fear that military service would change the religious self-identity of the young ultra-Orthodox conscript. This is why mainstream ultra-Orthodox Jews will agree only to conscription after marriage (or conscription of unmarried yeshiva dropouts), but not to drafting bachelors; the more radical members of the community are not prepared to consider the possibility of any military service by Haredi men.

With the rise of Israel’s third generation, around the year 2000, a change could be sensed within ultra-Orthodox society. At first, there was the "Nahal Haredi," a battalion set up for Haredi yeshiva dropouts. This was followed by special tracks that were established to enable married Haredi men to perform national civilian service and military service. These tracks were designed to give married ultra-Orthodox men a comfortable service environment, a reasonable salary, and, in many cases, occupational training as well.

Away from the limelight, and parallel to the legal storm over the status of yeshiva students, the proportion of young ultra-Orthodox men enlisting in the IDF and civilian service continued to increase. The number rose from a few dozen to hundreds, and the hundreds multiplied into thousands. In 2011 and 2012, some 2,400 ultra-Orthodox men began serving in the IDF or in national civilian service each year. Within the army, they primarily served in two tracks:

  1. A track for unmarried men: Unmarried young men from the ultra-Orthodox community, most of them yeshiva dropouts, can enlist in the "Nahal Haredi," which is a combat unit. The Netzach Yehuda battalion conducts active military operations and has won praise for its performance. Although some of its soldiers are no longer ultra-Orthodox, they come from an ultra-Orthodox background and their military service benefits everyone: the IDF, the soldiers themselves, and ultra-Orthodox society.
  2. A track for married men: Many of the ultra-Orthodox men who serve in the army sign up for special units run by several branches of the IDF, including the Air Force, Navy, Intelligence Corps, and the Home Front Command. In these units, the IDF guarantees special conditions—both spiritual and physical—that are suited to the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. For example, the IDF proudly notes that it provides kosher meals with the certification of eight different ultra-Orthodox kashrut supervision organizations in order to accommodate the differences among ultra-Orthodox groups. Similarly, the tracks for married ultra-Orthodox men provide higher salaries that are linked to family status.

At the same time, many ultra-Orthodox men are volunteering for national civilian service, in various civilian and defense-related areas both inside and outside the ultra-Orthodox community.

What motivates the ultra-Orthodox to enlist or volunteer? The first attraction is the salary and education that these tracks provide. Many ultra-Orthodox men do not really want to continue their yeshiva studies, but lack a secular education and vocation. How can they find a job and support their families? The option of military or civilian service seems to fit the bill. Married men with children are paid about 4,000 shekels a month, while at the same time acquiring an occupation they can pursue when they enter the job market. Research has found that most of the ultra-Orthodox men who serve in specialized tracks in the army find jobs more easily after their discharge than their peers who do not serve. Second, there is the legal limitation. Ultra-Orthodox men who drop out of yeshiva in their twenties are not allowed to work until they fulfill their military obligation. In 2012, they could not receive a full exemption from military service until age 28. This is another reason why these men turn to the programs I have mentioned here..

The secular public's demand that ultra-Orthodox serve in the military has sparked a major disagreement within the ultra-Orthodox world. Some believe that the increase of military service among Haredi men expresses the demand for accelerated integration of many of these young men into the Israeli economy, which starts with shouldering the burden of military service. Ultra-Orthodox Jews who accept this interpretation do not support the proposals for change, of course, but that can live with them up to a certain point, in part because they understand that not all ultra-Orthodox young men are suited to spending their entire lives studying Torah and that ultra-Orthodox society needs to achieve an economic balance.

On the other side, many of the ultra-Orthodox believe that the true objective of the various plans to conscript their young men is to change the identity of ultra-Orthodox society and make their young men more “Israeli” and less ultra-Orthodox. They recall that the IDF played a major role in the Israel melting pot of earlier decades, promoting a social ethos that turned many new immigrants away from religious observance. For those who see the situation in this light, the campaign to conscript the ultra-Orthodox is simply the start of a full-fledged religious war and must be resisted at all costs. The ultra-Orthodox language about this is becoming more extreme. The mass demonstration in Jerusalem on Sunday was an expression of this view.

I believe that dialogue is the only way to increase military service by the ultra-Orthodox. Assuming that there are no market failures that prevent Haredi men from joining the labor force, and given a suitable cultural climate, Adam Smith's “invisible hand” of self-regulation will do its work and the many ultra-Orthodox men who do not see Torah study as their sole occupation in life will find their place in the world of work. These men will return a large dividend—both to the ultra-Orthodox community, as they will be able to contribute to supporting men who study full time, and to Israeli society at large, as they will join its productive forces. 

Dr. Haim Zicherman is conducting research as part of IDI's Religion and State project and is an instructor at Ono Academic College and Sha'arei Mishpat College of Legal Studies. In 2012, he served as the content manager of the Committee for the Advancement of Equality in the Burden (the "Plesner Committee"), which was tasked with proposing a solution for the issue of the Haredi draft. Read the proposal on the Haredi draft that he authored with Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern.