Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox May Be Army-Bound
“It’s Going to Take Time,” but Haredi will be drafted
In the wake of a new Israeli government coalition, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community will likely join the ranks that serve in the country’s army, according to experts. “The ultra-Orthodox will be drafted,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst for The Jerusalem Post. “But it’s going to take time. This government is not going to go into the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, and put everyone in a uniform and give them a gun. It will happen gradually.”
Hoffman spoke to more than 100 Jewish Federation and Community Relations Council leaders in a teleconference Wednesday, hosted by The Jewish Federations of North America and moderated by Andrea Yablon of JFNA’s Israel and Overseas Committee. Hoffman discussed the new national unity government and its goal of drafting yeshiva students into the Israeli army to help the religious community integrate into society.
“The coalition agreement says that if no deal is reached on this issue by August 1, the Kadima party will have every right to leave the government,” said Hoffman. “So everyone now has an interest in finding a solution.”
Excusing the ultra-Orthodox from serving in the army dates back to the very early days of the State of Israel. Prime Minister David Ben Gurion negotiated a deal with the ultra-Orthodox leadership of the time, under which haredi – or ultra-Orthodox – yeshiva students would be granted an exemption from military service.
The deal affected only 400 students at the time, said Hoffman, and Ben Gurion “didn’t think they’d be very good soldiers. It wasn’t too much for him to lose.”
Now, Hoffman continued, there are 60,000 yeshiva students of draftable age. The Tal Law, launched in 2002, exempted religious Jews who participate in full-time Jewish learning from army service, but was recently ruled unlawful by the country’s Supreme Court. Many in the new Israeli government are eager to make their mark with legislation to draft ultra-Orthodox Israelis.
Hoffman outlined several possible legislative options. Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, who is heading coalition talks to replace the Tal Law, has proposed a solution where a third of the eligible students would be drafted into the army, a third would be chosen for national service and a third would remain in yeshiva. Plesner allows for deferment, and concedes the process could take five years to put into effect.
Other solutions have included Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s proposal that those who avoid serving in the army will receive no further government funding; Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s suggestion to pay soldiers more, incentivizing haredim to serve; and Likud MK Ze'ev Elkin's plan to establish a minimum number of ultra-Orthodox who would be required to enter the army, with increasing targets.
“Chances are the solution will be somewhere around where Plenser says and be connected to what Elkin says,” said Hoffman. “This is all being decided as we speak.”
Hoffman noted that even with Israel’s elections delayed to October 2013, the ultra-Orthodox political parties are losing influence and legislative power, and may be marginalized further in the next government. “The dominance they’ve had because they’ve held the balance of power is going to change really soon,” he said.
Although the Tal Law is one of the four main agenda items for the new government (others include passing a budget, advancing the peace process and government reform) Hoffman said the looming Iran issue remains another fundamental focus. “Netanyahu now has one and a half more years with Barak at his side, which has given [Iran] more time to be dealt with,” said Hoffman.
While a legislative solution will answer the question of drafting ultra-Orthodox into the army by later this summer, Hoffman stressed the positive role that Federation-supported projects play, saying “the real long-term solution comes not from politicians but from Diaspora Jews [who] are funding programs that can revolutionize ultra-Orthodox unemployment in Israel.”
Hoffman noted that the issue of drafting yeshiva students is just another step towards the ultimate goal of helping the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel. “By getting [national or armed service] out of the way, more can go into various educational or vocational programs,” he said. “The ultimate goal is getting them educated so they can make money and support their families.”