OpinionIsrael News

Don’t arrest haredi draft resisters

Israel cannot survive unless haredim serve in the IDF, but there are less draconian measures that can be taken.

Israeli soldiers walk by a protest in Jerusalem attended by hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews against a proposal to introduce compulsory military service to the haredi community, March 02, 2014. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
Israeli soldiers walk by a protest in Jerusalem attended by hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews against a proposal to introduce compulsory military service to the haredi community, March 02, 2014. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
Shuki Friedman. Credit: The Israel Democracy Institute.
Shuki Friedman
Shuki Friedman, Ph.D., is vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.

Last week’s Israeli Supreme Court ruling on ultra-Orthodox (haredi) IDF conscription could be a historic turning point. Just before the point of no return, the Court has given Israeli society an opportunity to right the ship and save Israel’s future.

But the ruling alone will not bring about change. To expedite haredi enlistment and integration into Israeli society writ large, significant sanctions must be imposed. The haredi leadership would be glad to exploit pictures of the military police herding yeshiva students onto armored buses headed for military prison. This must not happen.

However, there are a number of tools that can bring young haredi men to the induction centers and safeguard Israel’s continued existence.

The Court waited seven years for the Knesset to pass a proper conscription law. Extension after extension, and one legal gambit after another enabled yeshiva students to avoid military service, even in the absence of a conscription law. The Court could wait no longer. After all other options were exhausted and in light of the war in the south and the risk of war in the north, the Court obliged the state to mobilize the haredim.

The petitions, the Court hearings and the language of the ruling are no longer just about equality. Haredi conscription has become an existential necessity.

Before Oct. 7, we believed that the IDF could be a “small and smart army,” but reality cruelly slapped us in the face. The IDF, which is fighting the longest war in Israel’s history, is hungry for soldiers. So, now and for the foreseeable future the IDF’s order of battle must be substantially larger. It is no longer just a matter of “national burden equality.” This is a fight for our survival.

Today, the haredim number around 1.36 million people, 15% of the Israeli population. Some 60% are under the age of 20. In 2030, one out of four young Israelis will be haredi and the proportion of haredi youth in Israel’s Jewish population is expected to be around a third. These are dramatic numbers in terms of potential candidates for military service.

There are already 13,000 haredi youth in the conscription cohort, about 10% of the total. This rate will increase rapidly and the proportion of haredim among all conscription candidates is expected to grow significantly. Without the haredim, it will not be possible to sustain the army. First of all numerically but also in order to maintain the “people’s army” model, on which there is broad consensus—everyone must enlist.

Initial reactions from haredi leaders to the Supreme Court ruling indicate that, from their perspective, what has been the case will continue to be the case. Most haredim do not want to enlist. If there was any hope in the weeks following Oct. 7 that something might change, it has long since been dashed. Only a small percentage of haredim, between 10% and 20%, believe they should be drafted. The readiness to enlist is minimal. Haredi conscription must, therefore, include significant sanctions for those who do not enlist.

It is not enough to require the haredim to enlist or send them call-up orders. Complementary steps must be added based on the following principles:

All haredi males will be conscripted, except for a small quota of exemptions (“elite scholars”). The obligation to enlist is personal, not communal. This means that everyone enlists without the sectoral “goals” and “quotas” of previous laws.

Haredim who do not enlist will be designated deserters. They will not be imprisoned but they will bear a criminal stigma. They will not be able to leave the country, hold civil service jobs and more. Deferral of military service for the sake of Torah study will not be longer than three years. Haredi recruitment will be for the entire IDF (within adapted frameworks). Government stipends for those who do not serve will cease and institutions where those who do not serve study will not receive state funding. Support for Torah students who have served will also be limited in order to encourage the haredim to join the labor market after their military service. Those who do not serve will not receive state benefits beyond the basic social safety net (health services, food assistance, etc.). Those who do serve will receive preference in any state resource: real estate tenders, civil service jobs, etc.

One of the haredims’ justified concerns is identity erosion during military service. To enable them to serve in a way that is consistent with the haredi way of life, the IDF must build frameworks adapted to their needs. One possible solution is the establishment of a border corps, in which haredim will be stationed at separate bases in a way that “protects” their identity.

All this must happen not just because we need equality but because without haredi military service, we will not be able to survive in the face of the security challenges ahead.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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