Israel Vows To Draft Haredim, But Major Hurdles Remain

Fine Print and Timing Complicates Situation

Devil in the Details: Discontent over the Haredi exemption from military service contributed to Yair Lapid’s strong showing in the Israeli election. Still, any major changes could be years away.
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Devil in the Details: Discontent over the Haredi exemption from military service contributed to Yair Lapid’s strong showing in the Israeli election. Still, any major changes could be years away.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published March 24, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
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And the time lag in implementation of the anticipated law is not the only cause. During its campaign, Yesh Atid demanded a draft for all Haredi men when they reach the age of 18 — the age at which most others are conscripted — with the exception of 400 outstanding yeshiva students each year. But in the government coalition’s new plan, the Haredim don’t need to serve until the age of 21, and the number of exemptions is more than quadrupled, to 1,800.

Nevertheless, Ofer Shelah, the Yesh Atid lawmaker behind the draft plan that the government will promote, told the Forward: “This is huge. It’s revolutionary.”

Shelah said that during its campaign, Yesh Atid put forward the number 400 as a statement of “ethos” — a symbolic figure because this is the number of Haredim that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempted in 1948, when the Jewish state was founded. The exemption of 1,800 talented yeshiva students each year would mean that about 80% of Haredi men who come of age each year will serve, and that would be a success, he said.

Increasing the age of conscription for Haredim to 21 also carries a large cost, and this is in hard cash for Israeli taxpayers. By 21, many Haredi men have married, and married soldiers receive higher stipends than those who are single. Shelah said that legislation will overcome this problem by halving the stipends received by all married soldiers.

Despite these two compromises, Yesh Atid insisted on two other clauses in the promised legislation to ensure that its political victory was not marred by accusations that the party had backed down on principle.

The draft law will institute reductions in the usual three-year length of army service for other soldiers, based on the assumption that a larger pool of people will be sharing the burden.

And it will try to tackle one of the most complex problems stemming from the Haredi exemption. Currently, the condition for receiving an exemption is that Haredi men are enrolled in yeshiva. If enrolled, they are legally barred from working. The Yesh Atid plan says that this rule should be canceled during the four-year implementation period, opening employment opportunities to any Haredim who don’t want to study but wish to avoid the draft.


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