The crisis over the military draft of yeshiva students is one of the most enduring features of Israel’s political system. The exemptions offered for what was a minority of yeshiva students when the state was established in 1948 have turned over the years from a trickle to a flood. Israeli decision-makers have no idea how to change course and to share the draft burden equally among all Israelis, despite fiery speeches advocating such a shift.
It is hard to explain to the 18-year-olds conscripted into compulsory service — three years for men, two for women — why a growing segment of Israeli society does not enlist and is exempt from the challenges and dangers faced by those having to serve. It is also hard to explain to the public, a majority of which supports mandatory service by young ultra-Orthodox men. Efforts by both right- and left-wing governments to introduce minor amendments to the law to create a semblance of equality to the blanket exemptions for yeshiva students have not withstood the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.
With numerous petitions submitted to the top court against the unequal draft, the government formed a committee of defense experts to devise a solution that would not force the ultra-Orthodox to enlist but would exact a price from yeshivas for refusing to send their students to the army. The panel issued its recommendations on June 11, the gist of which call for a quota of draftees to be imposed on each yeshiva and for sanctions in the form of reducing state funding for those that fail to meet the quota. The funding would be further decreased with each year that the required quotas are not met. Unlike a 2014 amendment to the law adopted by the Knesset that incurred the wrath of the ultra-Orthodox, the current proposed version would not criminalize failure to enlist, and draft dodgers would not be punished. The 2014 amendment was canceled by the next government and replaced by a new law.
The Council of Torah Sages, the senior rabbis who instruct Knesset members of ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael, which forms part of the coalition’s Yahadut HaTorah faction, dismissed the committee’s recommendations out of hand. They declared that unless appropriate changes are made by July 22, the end of the Knesset’s summer session, the party’s four Knesset members will withdraw from the ruling coalition, virtually ensuring the fall of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Any compromise, given that the Supreme Court would regard it as contempt for failing to abide by its rulings on equality, would be a stopgap measure until the next crisis.
There is, however, an ostensibly simple solution. It is undoubtedly egalitarian, has moral and economic implications, but would not send military police rushing into ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to forcibly round up draft dodgers. The solution lies in existing Israeli law and only requires a slight amendment.
The Defense Service Law, adopted in 1949 and updated in 1986, stipulates that for a woman who has proven “that reasons of conscience or reasons connected with her family's religious way of life prevent her from serving in defense service shall be exempt from the duty of that service.” For decades, this clause has enabled religious young women to avoid the draft legally once the army checks the veracity of their sworn affidavits regarding their religious way of life. Some opt instead for national civic service, volunteer work in the service of the disadvantaged, while others opt out altogether.
Druze men have been conscripted since 1956, holding responsible positions in the armed services, and Bedouin men are also drafted, but their willingness to serve has plunged. Druze and Bedouin women are not called up nor are Israeli Arabs. This exemption, out of respect for their way of life and beliefs, can also be felt as rejection or mistrust. Those among them wishing to enlist, and their numbers are growing, do so as volunteers. Yeshiva students are called up for service, but anyone who provides proof of study in a yeshiva is granted a deferment, the practical meaning of which is an exemption.
If the language of the Defense Service Law is changed so that the word “woman” is replaced by the words “citizens and permanent residents,” draft notices could be sent to one and all — Jews, Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews and Druze women. The army would scrutinize requests for exemptions in an egalitarian fashion and approve them if they determine that the language of the law warrants them. The draft law, not the military service, would become a melting pot experience. If masses of Israelis abuse the clause to dodge the draft based on unsupported claims of conscience or religion, the Knesset could enact a temporary order enabling the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to revert to the existing recruitment system in order to fill its ranks, until a better option is found for broader burden sharing.
The advantage of this solution lies not only in its simplicity and in the equality it creates among men and women and various population groups. It also severs the link between exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox and their need to keep attending yeshivas as a condition for service deferment and their dependence on teachers and rabbis to obtain an exemption. Severing this tie would allow those young ultra-Orthodox men who do not want to pursue religious studies and who are enrolled in yeshivas only to avoid military service to join the labor force openly, rather than being forced into the black market to avoid prosecution for dodging the draft. This would constitute a significant contribution to the Israeli economy.
The groups most affected by this amendment would not applaud. The Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel prefer their blanket exemption from service to having to declare that reasons of conscience — an unwillingness to fight their brothers — prevent them from enlisting. Among the ultra-Orthodox, this would raise justified concerns about a significant decline in the number of yeshiva students once they no longer need “a note from the teacher” proving that they indeed study there.
After 70 years of glaring inequality, however, this is the only solution that treats everyone equally and provides exemptions for those unwilling to serve, without turning the IDF from a people’s army into a professional, paid force. Hopefully, once military service, rather than exemption, becomes the default option, the IDF would find unexpected recruits from among those who had never even considered enlisting. It would also provide an opportunity to exempt conscientious objectors, as is customary in other democracies. There is no reason to limit such exemptions to women as the law currently does. The time has come for dramatic change.
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