The Proposals for Drafting the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel: The Issues at Hand

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In an article originally published on the NRG website, IDI Vice President of Research Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer critiques several aspects of many of the current proposals for integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the army and calls on the Israeli public to stand firm on its demand for an arrangement that is fair and equitable.

The Israeli public has been presented with an astonishing number of proposals for resolving the issue of the Haredi draft. These include the proposal of Eugene Kandel, which has been adopted by the Prime Minister, although its details have not been revealed to the public. Most of these proposals are designed to appeal to the leaders of the Haredi community, the vast majority of whom are vehemently opposed to drafting men who are engaged in Torah study. There is therefore reason for concern that these proposals are not intended to gradually create equality in military service; rather, they are intended to create a misleading impression of progress toward achieving equality in order to placate the public.

Most of the proposals on the table have two elements that are grounds for rejecting the proposals:

The proposals that advocate the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men at the age of 22 or older, rather than at the age of 18 like other young Israelis, accept discrimination against the non-Haredi public in principle. If this proviso is accepted, the army service of the ultra-Orthodox, who will enlist when they are married and have families, will be completely different than the army service of other members of the Israeli public. Their military service will be shorter, they will probably serve on the home front, and their service is more likely to be in frameworks that are not military per se, such as the military police or the home front defense. The needs of the army, which mostly needs combat soldiers, will not be met. This type of "service" would also be extremely expensive, both because of the need to fund these soldiers and to provide financial incentives that will motivate yeshivas to encourage students to serve in the Israeli army. These funds could be used to meet essential needs in the areas of security and education. When it struck down the Tal Law, the Israeli Supreme Court said that recruitment of Haredim at the age of 22 is an inherent obstacle to the goal of promoting equality.

The proposal that national civil service could be offered as an alternative to military service is also patently inequitable. Civilian service is not equivalent to military service. Moreover, this option would require a significant financial investment and its value is questionable: the quality of the work done by the ultra-Orthodox would be poor because they lack appropriate skills and training, and if they serve in civilian service there will be fewer positions available in the employment market for other young Israelis following the completion of their military service. If there is to be an alternative to military service for Haredim who are not of interest to the Israeli army, it must be real work, in the regular workforce—the kind of employment that provides an actual income.

In addition, the Israeli government must put an end to the financial support that it dispenses to yeshiva students and to the yeshivot in which they are studying. The only exception to this rule should be a quota of exceptional Torah scholars (5–10 percent) whose studies will be financed by the state, as an expression of respect or tolerance for the tradition of Torah study. The funds that are saved by ending the practice of supporting an enormous "society of learners" at the expense of the public should not be seen as reserved for the ultra-Orthodox community. This practice was never justified to begin with, and enabled Torah study to be exploited for personal gain. The money in question was stolen from the general public and there is no justification for continuing this robbery.

With regard to the rhetoric of the proposals under consideration:

The main argument that is presented as justification for arrangements that are not equitable is that we must take steps to prevent the possibility that men who are engaged in Torah study will drift away from their social-cultural frame of reference as a result of serving in the army at age 18. It is curious that this argument is raised by the very same people who are demanding that the ultra-Orthodox be able to serve in special programs within the IDF that accommodate the Haredi lifestyle; if such programs are to be set up, why would service in the military threaten the ultra-Orthodox way of life? Moreover, it is not clear why members of the Haredi community are worth more than any other Jews in Israeli society, whose sons are exposed to experiences that can change their awareness and personality during the course of their military service. And how is it possible to justify imposing longer service on these secular Jewish soldiers in order to preserve the power of the large and growing Haredi community?

Some of the proposals are based on the principle that it is necessary to avoid coercion in drafting the ultra-Orthodox for military service. But what about coercion that is used to force other people who do not wish to serve in the army to serve? For example, recruits from needy families that are desperately in need of another pair of hands for work, or young people who would prefer to complete their academic studies before serving in the military or gentle souls who object to military service for reasons of conscience? And what about the fact that the rest of the population of Israel must serve a longer period of service, rather than serving a shorter period, which would be possible if yeshiva students were to be drafted as well? And that they are forced to serve in the reserves, which could be avoided if more people would share the burden of military service?

The argument that we must "prevent coercion" also rests on an arrogant assumption; it assumes that it is justified to force some people to serve in the military, while there are other people whose blood is redder and whose study is more important, for whom coercion is out of the question.

The leaders of the Haredi community have come to the discussion with unclean hands. Everyone knows that a significant number of men are currently exempted from military service because they are ostensibly learning Torah when actually they are not learning at all, or their study is not on a level that would justify an exemption from service. The Haredi leadership could bring about a situation in which all of these men would serve in the army, but it is not doing so. The leaders of this community are coming to the negotiations with a belligerent approach and a lack of willingness to accept the democratic decision of the majority. Anyone who asserts that the arrangement regarding the Haredi draft must be devoid of coercion is capitulating to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox in advance.

The general Israeli public, which shoulders the burden of military service, is entitled to be treated with respect and its intelligence should not be insulted. This public must stand firm on its demand for an arrangement that is fair and equitable, and must defend its right not to be exploited. 

For further reading: Motion for the Agenda: A Proposal for Integrating the Ultra-Orthodox into the IDF, by Avi Ben-Bassat, Momi Dahan, and Mordechai Kremnitzer.

Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and Professor Emeritus of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A version of this article was originally published in Hebrew on the NRG website on February 26, 2013.