newsIsrael at War

Haredi enlistment: The political hot potato before the Knesset recess

The opposition is gleefully contemplating the fall of the government and early elections.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Bnei Brak clash with police as they protest against the arrest of haredi men who failed to comply with their army draft notice, Dec. 27, 2020. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Bnei Brak clash with police as they protest against the arrest of haredi men who failed to comply with their army draft notice, Dec. 27, 2020. Photo by Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90.

The Israeli High Court’s decision on Tuesday was plain and simple: When it comes to enlistment to the Israel Defense Forces, there needs to be equality between all sectors of the Israeli public.

This decision came after a petition to the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, demanding that ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students be drafted to the IDF, due to the fact that there is currently no law “that makes it possible to distinguish between students of the yeshivahs and others” concerning mandatory military service.

As such, the state does not have the authority to prevent their enlistment, the nine-justice panel continued in its two-page ruling.

There was another shock ruling. “It is not possible to continue transferring support funds for yeshivahs and kollels for students who did not receive an exemption or whose military service was not postponed,” the court wrote.

“The court has made a very clear statement regarding the funding of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) yeshivah students of conscription age (18-26),” Avishai Grinzaig, a legal affairs reporter for the Kan News public broadcaster, told JNS. “The state cannot finance their yeshivah studies or give financial benefits that would allow them to study in yeshivah and not to go to work,” he said.

“The High Court’s ruling is a simple ruling: when there is no law that allows the non-conscription of the ultra-Orthodox, they are like all other citizens of the State of Israel,” MK Matan Kahana, a member of the opposition National Unity Party and a former religious services minister, told JNS.

“The court also told the government: You are breaking the law, you were supposed to draft them six months ago, when the previous law expired,” he said.

These issues will be the political hot potato in the coming month before the Knesset goes into the summer break. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows passing an enlistment law is crucial for his government’s survival; the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers know that their rabbis will not allow them to stay in the coalition if laws are passed that don’t allow their students to remain in the yeshivahs and there are no budgets for their yeshivah students, and the opposition is gleefully contemplating the downfall of the government and early elections.

Aug. 9 funding cut deadline

The ruling caused political mayhem in Netanyahu’s coalition—it started a countdown towards the moment the financial benefits for yeshivah students must end—Aug. 9.

Before then, the 64-member Knesset coalition needs to pass a law. A task that may sound easy but is very difficult.

The haredi parties—United Torah Judaism and Shas—are in a bind: If the government does not pass a law exempting ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students from the draft, they might quit the coalition. On the other hand, some coalition MKs, including inside the ruling Likud Party, have announced that they won’t support such a law, and will agree only to a limited number of ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students being deferred from service in the army.

“Do you think there’s a chance all coalition members will agree on a law for drafting yeshivah students?” JNS asked MK Moshe Shimon Roth of United Torah Judaism. “The answer is yes. Yeshivah students should be exempt because they are contributing their part by Torah study. Those who do not go to yeshivah and do not study should be part of the security services.

“But I think we should ask if the army is interested in their enlistment, and is the army capable of giving them the environment that they need? This was the case for women who joined combat units. The necessary adaptions were made,” he said.

3,000?

The IDF believes it can draft 3,000 ultra-Orthodox by the end of the year. But while the ultra-Orthodox might agree to this as the maximum annual number, the Supreme Court sees this as just the beginning.

“The actual recruitment number is very unclear. The court ruled that there is a requirement for equality between all citizens of a certain age regarding recruitment. But what is the actual bottom line? The Ministry of Defense says we can now draft 3,000 haredi guys. But the court did not determine that this was the quota,” Grinzaig told JNS.

“How do you recruit those 3,000?” he asked. “Do you recruit all yeshivah students and then hope that 3,000 will show up? Everyone is talking about immediate implementation of the verdict, but no one gets into the details.”

Discussions have been held in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to try to formulate a new enlistment law. Committee chair MK Yuli Edelstein of the Likud Party said that only if there were a wide consensus would there be a law, meaning that he demands that the opposition parties, or at least some of them, agree to a formula for the ultra-Orthodox draft.

“In all of Israel’s history, no law was passed in consensus by everyone,” Roth told JNS. “I mean everybody loves the word. it’s beautiful. But since it’s a political issue, so I don’t see any possibility of a consensus. This law has to do with only one thing—the defense needs of Israel. There is of course the question of the value of the Torah, especially if we agree that we are the people of the book.”

Kahana told JNS, “If you only recruit 3,000 and think that you have solved the problem, the answer is: We will not support the bill.

“But if you build an outline, in which you show that you are working to recruit ultra-Orthodox to the army, and little by little the number of recruits increases, then I say: Give them the budgets. We will support a law that will solve this problem in a serious way, and not hand out a band-aid,” he said

This view is shared by some Likud members, such as MK Dan Illouz.

“I have already clarified how the law should look, and I do not feel that the High Court’s decision affects the issue. We are in an existential war with increased security needs, and the burden that falls on the reservists is too heavy,” he told JNS.

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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