The Charedi draft: Here we go again

Here we go again, like a broken record, and the sound is dissonant, disappointing, and disgraceful. Israel's Security Service Law, which drafts our sons and daughters into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), compelling them to risk their lives for their country, has been amended again by the Knesset because of changes in the make-up of the coalition government. Made in response to demands by the ultra-Orthodox parties, this amendment is the latest twist in the complex and absurd saga of the ultra-Orthodox draft in Israel.

Drafting the ultra-Orthodox for service in the IDF is both appropriate and doable—without a religious and cultural conflict—if the political system is smart and enables the members of this community to make this historic change at the right pace and under appropriate conditions. Although the new amendment ostensibly achieves this, since it exempts the ultra-Orthodox from military service for an eternity of nine years, the amendment is bad news for several reasons:    

First, Israel's Security Service Law has tremendous symbolic importance. The incessant zig-zagging on this law and its disfigurement through hurried and ill-thought out changes, devised in response to the religious and political desires of an oft fleeting Israeli government, is damaging national security.     

Second, it is very likely that judicial review by the Supreme Court will determine that the amendment is unconstitutional. The biggest problem with the amendment is that it entrusts Haredi conscription to the Defense Minister, who is to use his discretion to define target goals for ultra-Orthodox conscription, as well as the steps that the state will take if the goals are not met. There are no limitations on his discretion and it is wide open to his personal preferences. Thus, in doing this, the Knesset has waived its authority to decide on one of the most important and essential issues on the national agenda and entrusted it to the executive branch—a practice that was deemed unacceptable by the Rubenstein Supreme Court ruling of 1998.    

Third, the Knesset's abdication of responsibility—after years of deliberation on this matter, which was at the heart of the last Knesset election—is a clear example of the problems of the system of government in Israel. The vast majority of Knesset members would oppose this amendment were they allowed to make a straightforward, values-based decision. This was also true of the previous amendment of this law, when the Yesh Atid faction forced the majority of the Knesset to back its position because the coalition hinged on its support. These two episodes indicate the Israeli political system does not enable the will of the majority to determine policy. The Knesset's behavior regarding this law is an expression of its bankruptcy and dysfunction regarding central issues on the national agenda.   

Fourth, the amendment is unconstitutional. Attorney Miri Frenkel-Shor, legal advisor to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, issued a well-reasoned and convincing legal opinion warning of this before the Knesset vote. Knesset members who voted in favor of the amendment thus played into the hands of the Supreme Court, which will ultimately have to rule on this national issue and reject the opinion of the majority of the Knesset.  

Lastly, once the Supreme Court strikes down the amendment, many people will rail against the Court's judicial activism. This objection, however, will be misplaced, since the current amendment is so absurd that the legislators are essentially forcing the Court to intervene. One might even venture that the right-wing's support for this amendment is not only an easy way to preserve the coalition but is also a roundabout way of enabling an additional onslaught against the Supreme Court after the legislation has been shot down.

And what about the Haredi draft? The desired result could have been achieved quietly and efficiently had the Knesset adopted a rational arrangement that would encourage military service through positive and negative economic incentives. The extreme solution adopted by the previous law, which included criminal sanctions that were bound to fail, and the extreme solution adopted by the current law, which grants a de facto exemption from military service for many years, guarantee that this issue will continue to be a bone of contention that leads to hatred between brothers. It will also prevent the realization of a vital national goal: widespread conscription of Israel's ultra-Orthodox men for meaningful military service.

Yedidia Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a Professor of Law at Bar-Ilan University. 

Israel seals deal ending military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox

Israel clinched a deal on Wednesday to abolish wholesale exemptions from military service for Jewish seminary students, ended a brief crisis that divided the ruling coalition parties.

The issue of “sharing the national burden” is at the heart of heated debate over privileges the ultra-Orthodox minority has enjoyed for decades, and a government-appointed committee had failed to formulate a new conscription law earlier this week.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, had balked at a clause under which criminal charges would be brought against those trying to dodge conscription.

Netanyahu's main coalition partner, the centrist Yesh Atid party, threatened on Monday to quit the government unless the issue was resolved.

In a compromise that paved the way for the deal, the committee agreed on sanctions but delayed imposing them during a four-year interim period in which the military will encourage 18-year-old Bible scholars to enlist, political officials said.

Under the proposed law, which still faces ratification in the cabinet and parliament, the number of seminary students exempted from the military each year will be limited to 1,800 of the estimated 8,000 required to register for the draft annually.

Welcoming the agreement on the proposed law, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told a news conference: “The government proved it can make a change, even on the most explosive issues.”

Yesh Atid came second to Likud in the January general election on a pledge to reduce state benefits for Israel's fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority and end military service exemptions for the community.

For the first time in a decade, Israel's government has no ultra-Orthodox members, and main coalition partners had pressed Netanyahu to break with political tradition and enact reforms under a slogan of “sharing the national burden”.

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions have been made for most Arab citizens of Israel, as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israeli military begins drafting haredi Orthodox

The Israel Defense Forces have begun drafting haredi Orthodox 18-year-olds without encountering significant protests, one week after a new law requiring haredi military service took effect.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on July 31 ordered the IDF to compose guidelines for haredi army service within 30 days, and in the meantime implemented the Military Service Law of 1986 with regard to the haredi Orthodox. The law requires every Jewish Israeli to serve in the IDF, and includes penalties of up to three years in prison for those who do not comply.

A military source with knowledge of the issue told JTA that one week after the law’s implementation, the IDF has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting haredi youth through the draft process.  The 18-year-olds are undergoing competency tests in math, Hebrew and general knowledge, as would any draftee.

Previously, under legislation known as the Tal Law, haredi youth would be able to go to an IDF induction center with a letter from a rabbi exempting them from military service so they could study Jewish texts in a yeshiva. The Israeli Supreme Court invalidated the Tal Law in February.

The court mandated the government to pass new legislation by Aug. 1, but no such legislation has been passed.

Barak orders haredi Orthodox conscription

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to draft haredi Orthodox men as it does other Jewish Israelis.

Barak has allowed a month for officials to formulate regulations on haredi conscription, according to reports.

The order came as the Tal Law, which allowed haredi men to defer army service, expired on Wednesday. Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the law in February.

Israeli law mandates that Jewish Israelis enter the army at age 18. Some Israelis legally defer army service for a year or more to study and prepare for the army. Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the army.

Since the Tal Law was overturned, the debate over Israel’s mandatory conscription has been at the center of the country’s political discourse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a unity government in May with the centrist Kadima, the Knesset’s largest party, to draft new legislation on mandatory service that would address haredi and Arab youth, but Kadima and its leader Shaul Mofaz quit the coalition in July after failing to reach an agreement with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu wants two teams to examine draft alternatives

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Friday that he has ordered the formulation of two teams to examine universal draft alternatives.

One team will be headed by Prime Minister’s Office representatives and the other by ones from Kadima, Ynet reported.

Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz, however, has rejected Netanyahu’s plan to form two new committees.

Netanyahu had said Mofaz had agreed to the move, but the Kadima chairman stressed that any advancement on the issue must be based on recommendations of the Plesner Committee, which was charged with formulating a new law on haredi Orthodox military service.

The Plesner committee released its preliminary findings on Wednesday, despite being dissolved two days earlier by Netanyahu.

The committee’s report calls for universal service for all Israeli citizens, including mandating the draft of haredi Orthodox men and upgrading the National Service program for the Arab sector. It also calls for formulating an effective enforcement system and incentives for serving.

The report calls for individual financial sanctions against draft evaders, as well as sanctions against yeshivas that prevent their students from entering the draft.

In February, the Israeli Supreme Court declared that the Tal Law, which allowed haredi Orthodox men to defer service indefinitely, to be unconstitutional, and set Aug. 1 as the deadline for a new law to be passed.