AN revised IDF service invoice is on its way to confirmation in the Knesset. Over the years, Israeli politicians and civil society groups have called for young ultra-Orthodox men to be enlisted in the military rather than allowing them to stay and study in yeshivas. The new plan is a major concession by the left parties to the principle known as ‘burden-sharing’.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid and Minister of Finance Avigdor Liberman are closely tied to long-held demands that the ultra-Orthodox share the burden. Judging by the new plan, they seem to have realized that yeshiva students cannot be forcibly conscripted. They are now forgoing military service for economic reasons, in order to get these young people to work.
When the state of Israel was new, Prime Minister David ben Gurion struck a deal with the ultra-Orthodox leaders. The deal was that the several hundred yeshiva students could continue their Torah studies and not be drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, despite the new land. conscription. When the Likud came to power in the late 1970s, the scheme was broadened and within a decade the number of exemptions rose to thousands, representing 15% of the population of military age.
The conscription exemption relied on yeshiva research, which allowed ultra-Orthodox youth to remain in the schools until they became ineligible for conscription at age 28. The long study period meant that ultra – Orthodox were also barred from working for many years .
The problem worsened at the turn of the new millennium: while 60% of ultra-Orthodox workers were employed in 1980, only one third of ultra-Orthodox men did so in 2003, leading most ultra-Orthodox youths to economic burden on the state. And although the state supported them with various allowances and allowances, the poverty among the Israeli ultra-Orthodox has reached about 50% of the families.
The issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription has become a very sensitive issue in Israeli society. Over the years, different solutions were offered like the “Tal Lawin 2000 to put ultra-Orthodox young men to work for two years and then decide whether to return to the yeshiva or do shortened military or national service. But the law expired in 2012. Supreme Court petitions against the government and the special exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodoxes put the issue on the table. Protesters continued to demand equality in “burden sharing” with the support of Yesh Atid.
In 2014, when Yesh Atid was in Netanyahu’s government, a new law was passed that set quotas for hiring ultra-Orthodox men. New IDF service tracks are specially designed for the ultra-Orthodox, such as the combat battalion known as Netzah Yehuda, an ultra-Orthodox battalion in the Paratrooper Company and technological tracks in various service industries.
While these moves slightly increased ultra-Orthodox conscription, the majority still did not serve. In 2017, the Supreme Court decided to repeal the law and demanded that the Knesset pass a more egalitarian law. The Defense Department under Lieberman prepared a bill that would significantly increase the ultra-Orthodox IDF service trajectories, as well as the civil service as an alternative that would allow the population to continue studying in yeshivas. The heads of the ultra-Orthodox parties initially accepted the new law, but changed their minds in late 2018. In the political crisis that followed, the government fell.
The current government has no ultra-Orthodox parties. It includes not only Lapid and Liberman, but also leftist Meretz and Defense Secretary Benny Gantz, who are also proponents of “burden-sharing.” The coalition agreements signed in May include equal obligations.
The new bill temporarily exempts ultra-Orthodox youth from military service. A committee of ministers will determine alternative forms of service for ultra-Orthodox. At the same time, professional training programs would be set up to help young ultra-Orthodox youth enter the labor market.
There are two main reasons for the government’s new approach. Over the years, it became increasingly apparent that any attempt to forcibly recruit the ultra-Orthodox would lead to civil disobedience and nasty confrontations, worsening the divide between the ultra-Orthodox and wider society. The IDF leadership has made it clear that it would be difficult to field large numbers of ultra-Orthodox men who require completely different conditions from the other soldiers, including nutritional needs, the removal of female soldiers from their units and many other matters.
The second reason, the economic aspect, is perhaps even more important. The fact that half of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel don’t work for a living – and not just the young – is a heavy burden on the state in the form of family allowances and a loss of tax revenue and labor productivity. That’s why, after approving the changes, Bennett stressed: “Today we are… opening the gates of work and employment for ultra-Orthodox youth. We are taking down the barriers and giving thousands of young ultra-Orthodox Jews freedom of choice, without coercion and without tanks in Bnei Brak. This is the long but right road to the national interest. The first and foremost goal of all of us is the integration of the ultra-Orthodox society into the labor market.”
Liberman tweeted: “The purpose of the military is to protect the homeland, but also to be the ‘melting pot’ that unites all aspects of society. Our decision balances that melting pot with the needs of today’s economy, which needs more people to participate in the world of employment.”
Interestingly, the ultra-Orthodox has not yet responded to these changes, perhaps because these parties see the benefits in the law. They may even rejoice at the thought that they have managed to convince their opponents to stop trying to force their yeshiva students to serve in the military.