Australia/Israel Review

Israeli politics is feeling a draft

May 31, 2024 | Ilan Evyatar

The IDF is designed to be accommodating to all Israelis, including the very religious. However, ultra-Orthodox communities have largely avoided serving since Israel’s earliest days (Image: Shutterstock)
The IDF is designed to be accommodating to all Israelis, including the very religious. However, ultra-Orthodox communities have largely avoided serving since Israel’s earliest days (Image: Shutterstock)

When National Union party leader Benny Gantz issued an ultimatum on May 18 warning that he would quit the Government by June 8 unless it adopted a far-reaching post-war strategy, one of the six strategic goals he set out was not directly connected to the war itself. He also called for a policy outline to ensure military service for all Israeli citizens, referring to a long-standing controversy over Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, citizens, the overwhelming majority of whom do not serve in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). 

The issue of “service for all” has returned to the headlines in Israel recently with the expiry in late March of the Government’s self-declared deadline to pass a new draft law to meet requirements set by the High Court. Meanwhile, the war in Gaza, the daily attrition with Hezbollah in the north and attacks on Israel from other fronts have highlighted the need for a larger army. The IDF has already announced plans to extend the length of mandatory service, double the number of days served by reservists and push back the age of exemption from reserve duty by at least five years. Some reservists have already served for months on end during the war, but if all-out war breaks out on the northern front they can expect to be recalled to duty. 

The draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students goes back to the early days of the nascent state when Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion waived service requirements for 400 yeshiva students. This decision was based on the rationale that the Holocaust had decimated the European world of Jewish religious scholarship. The number of Haredim in Israel at the time was relatively low, and the exemption was thus inconsequential to the IDF’s manpower needs. 

When the Defence Service Law was enacted in 1949, the draft exemption was extended to all yeshiva students, but Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population subsequently grew, and with it the number of draft waivers granted to such students. After the 1967 Six-Day War, a cap of 800 annual draft exemptions for yeshiva students was set. 

After the political upheaval of 1977, when Labor was superseded by Likud as the ruling party for the first time, then-PM Menachem Begin lifted these numerical restrictions. As the proportion of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society has grown since and with it their political clout, the number of young men with draft waivers has risen exponentially. 

Today, according to 2021 figures from the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), the number of Haredim who receive draft exemptions based on Torato Omanuto (“Torah is his profession”) has surpassed 10,000 a year. That figure accounts for over 17.5% of the draft pool of Jewish men of conscription age, and does not include Haredim who received exemptions for physical or mental health reasons. 

With the percentage of Haredim in the general population projected to reach 18% in 2025 and almost 25% by 2050, the implications of these numbers are enormous, both in terms of the burden of reserve duty carried by those who do serve in the IDF and the economic burden of subsidising yeshiva students who remain outside of the workforce. More than 167,000 Haredim now study in yeshivot and kollels (yeshivot for married men), an increase of 56% in a decade, and are funded by the state to the tune of 5.6 billion shekels (A$2.3 billion) a year. 

The IDI has calculated that, if by 2050 the percentage of Haredim drafted into the army were to be equal to the percentage of people drafted among the general Jewish population, the economy would save 8-10 billion shekels just in payments to reservists. Each serving reservist would also do 35-45 fewer days of reserve duty, meaning that the army in peacetime would not need reservists except to train them and maintain operational readiness. 

The long-standing draft deferral arrangements are hugely unpopular among secular and national religious Israelis, all the more so after the sacrifices of the last few months. Over the years, there have been countless plans, committees and legislative attempts to finalise draft arrangements to achieve something close to “service for all”. These plans have either been scrapped for political reasons or struck down by the High Court for violating the principle of equality; namely, not demanding from the Haredim that they serve just like everyone else (with the exception of Israel’s Arab citizens, for whom service is voluntary). 

Meanwhile, ultra-Orthodox communities mostly remain staunchly opposed to military service for their youth, arguing with apparently complete sincerity that the prayers and study undertaken at the yeshivot are more valuable to Israel’s security and well-being than military service. It is also clear that the leaders of these largely insular communities are anxious that exposure to military service would make it very difficult to maintain their unique way of life. So, the two political parties which represent these communities, and often hold the balance of power in the Knesset, have staunchly resisted any draft reforms that would mandate ultra-Orthodox service.

Ultra-Orthodox groups say the latest conscription bill could bring “disaster” to their way of life (Image: Shutterstock)

But a series of High Court rulings over recent years have made this inertia on the subject difficult to sustain. Just a day before the Government was due to give a supplementary affidavit to the High Court on its plans for new legislation ahead of a planned hearing in early June, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pulled an old plan out of the legislative drawer and announced he would advance legislation originally put forward in 2022 by none other than Benny Gantz when he was defence minister in the short-lived Bennett-Lapid Government. 

Netanyahu likely hoped to lean on the fact that it was Gantz who originally proposed the legislation and thus either demand his support or embarrass him. However, Gantz pointed out that his proposal had only been intended as a two-year stopgap until legislation for an expanded conscription program could be enacted. Gantz’s May 18 ultimatum came a couple of days later. 

The proposed bill has come under intense criticism, including from Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara, who said it does not meet the “updated defence requirements stemming from the war that was forced on Israel.” 

The IDI, meanwhile, agreed, saying: “The proposed law ignores the dramatic change in Israel’s security situation since October 7 and does not address the need for more combat soldiers, nor does it respect the burden on the populations that already serve, both in their regular military service and in the reserves. This law was problematic even before October 7, and today it is neither relevant nor justified.”

The 2022 bill sets conscription targets that are relatively inconsequential in the face of current needs. It calls for 1,566 Haredi soldiers to be drafted in the first year of the law’s implementation, a figure that represents an increase of only around 350 Haredi soldiers over the current average, with an additional 125 in the second year and 136 in the third year. Given the rate of growth of the Haredi population, this is actually a decline in relative terms. It also allows for Haredim to serve only a shortened three-month tenure in the IDF if they enter the army after the age of 21. 

Haredi politicians and leaders have made it clear they won’t accept any significant change without a fight. In the run up to the March 28 deadline for passing a new conscription law, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef warned in his weekly Saturday night sermon that if the draft waiver arrangement wasn’t renewed, Haredim would leave the country. “If you force us to go to the army, we’ll all move abroad,” he said. 

Some other Haredi politicians have said that they would be able to “swallow” the 2022 bill in its current format, but even that is too much for others. 

One Haredi minister speaking off the record to Kikar HaShabbat, a website affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox community, said that the legislation “would bring disaster upon the Torah world. It contains everything that [secularist opposition politician Yair] Lapid wanted and everything we objected to. We cannot agree, even to get an extension from the High Court.” 

Israel now finds itself at a nexus of war and political instability. 

The Haredi draft exemption has played a role in the fall of several Israeli governments over the past decades. However, if Gantz and his National Union make good on their threat to withdraw from the national emergency government, it wouldn’t be enough in itself to bring down Netanyahu and the Government. But he isn’t the only one to have threatened to pull out over the war and conscription issue. 

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who clashed with Netanyahu over the judicial reform last year, challenged him again on May 15 over plans for the day after in Gaza and has also said that he will not accept any legislation on conscription that does not meet the IDF’s needs or is not supported by Gantz. 

The Knesset, meanwhile, returned from recess on May 20, the same day that the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in the Hague said he would be seeking arrest warrants against Netanyahu and Gallant. An interesting summer session of the Israeli legislature clearly awaits. 

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