Despite Election Spotlight, Netanyahu May Resist Change in Haredi Draft Exemption

Premier Still Needs Support of Ultra-Orthodox Parties

Status Quo: Benjamin Netanyahu is facing pressure to end the exemption that ultra-Orthodox men enjoy from serving in the Israel military. But he’s also seeking the support of Haredi parties, meaning little may change.
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Status Quo: Benjamin Netanyahu is facing pressure to end the exemption that ultra-Orthodox men enjoy from serving in the Israel military. But he’s also seeking the support of Haredi parties, meaning little may change.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published February 26, 2013, issue of March 01, 2013.
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The Prime Minister’s Office declined a request from the Forward to respond to this and to other criticisms of its proposal.

Lipman said that Yesh Atid is demanding a draft for all Haredim when they reach the age of 18, with the exception of 400 outstanding students. It wants to create more Haredi-only units and to cater to the religious demands of Haredim to make service culturally acceptable in the community. Lipman says that this can happen, that the Haredi community will reduce its opposition and that there “won’t be massive numbers [of objectors] going to jail.”

Yesh Atid’s one leniency toward the Haredi sector is its five-year lead-time for a draft, or in Lipman’s parlance, the “amnesty.” Currently, the condition for receiving an exemption is that Haredi men are enrolled in yeshiva, and if enrolled, they are legally barred from working. The Yesh Atid plan says that this rule should be canceled for five years, opening employment opportunities to any Haredim who don’t want to study but wish to avoid the draft.

Yesh Atid, like Netanyahu, believes that many Haredim have no interest in studying in yeshiva and are enrolled simply to receive an exemption. An “amnesty,” it hopes, will disprove the Haredi community’s claim that the draft undermines a culture of near-universal yeshiva study.

Yedidia Stern, the author of another prominent draft proposal, finds the idea of the amnesty absurd. If it were implemented, he said, Haredim would be exceedingly careful to safeguard their community’s narrative on yeshiva study, and they would ensure that students do not leave and prove Yesh Atid correct. “If the leadership of the Haredi community will understand that the next five years is a test case for Torah study, then the pressure on people to stay in yeshiva will be enormous,” he predicted.

Stern, who is vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, argues that Yesh Atid’s proposal is based on a cultural misunderstanding about what motivates fear of the draft. He said, “The real reason they do not go to the army is the feeling that if a boy of 18 who has spent his life in a ghetto and not seen beyond it won’t come out of the army the same way he went in, they fear he will stop being Haredi, and the fear is that the community’s identity could be over.”

Stern’s solution is to estimate when Haredi men are confident in their identity and to wait until then before drafting them. According to his research, at 22 some 77% of Haredi men are married, suggesting that they are “culturally solid.” Also, he hopes that a draft of men at that age won’t trigger fear of widespread abandonment of a Haredi lifestyle.

Stern’s aim is that by 2022, two-thirds of Haredi men in the 18 to 22 age bracket will be serving or will have served. Like Netanyahu, Stern wants some financial pressure on individuals to enlist, but he places the major emphasis on financial penalties for yeshivas that send few students to the draft office. The difference is that Stern wants penalties to grow year by year, until they reach a point where a yeshiva that fails to send students for the draft could face closure.

“Within about six years they will lose almost everything they get and won’t be able to survive,” Stern said. This, he claimed, would make any retrenchment impossible.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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