The big bugaboo returns

Published in The Jerusalem Post, April 19, 2019.

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The drafting or exemption of haredi men from military service is back as the super-stumbling block before Netanyahu’s new government. Here are two possible solutions.


The drafting or exemption of haredi (Ultra-Orthodox Jewish) men from military service is the super-stumbling block before Netanyahu’s new government.

Yisrael Beyteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman insists on adoption of an aggressive new law to draft haredim (plural for haredi), and he holds the keys to a new Netanyahu-led coalition government. The haredi parties, which grew to 16 seats in this month’s election and are no-less a linchpin of the apparent new coalition, are stridently opposed.

There is a long history here, with many government committees formulating compromise proposals that were, over the past 20 years, supposed to gradually bring about a significant increase in military service by haredi men, while allowing many, if not most, young haredi yeshiva students to avoid the draft.

There was the Tal plan of 2002, the Plesner plan of 2012, the Perry plan of 2013, the Shaked plan of 2014, and then the nonsensically-named “Equal Service Law” of 2015. These ranged from soft arrangements that gave long-term blanket exemptions to tens of thousands of yeshiva and kollel students (the Tal and Shaked laws) to radically-hard proposals (the Perry plan) which threatened to imprison almost every haredi youngster that didn’t enlist by age 21.

None of these plans heralded real “equality” regarding military service. The “Sweet Shaked” law (as it was quietly called in haredi circles) legally enshrined Torah study as an important value and legislated government-supported Torah studies for all haredi men until age 21, without exception. It also allowed most haredim who want to seriously study Torah full-time to do so even beyond that age.

Nevertheless, the Shaked law as subsequently amended did indeed lead to modest rises in the number of men, coming from the periphery of haredi society, who elected to serve for truncated periods of time in the IDF or in national service.

Even more importantly, the law allowed many haredi men (and women) to leave the yeshiva cocoon and go to college and to work without fear of the military draft – a trend that is necessary and encouraging for the health of both haredi society and the Israeli economy alike.

But the Supreme Court unwisely struck down the draft/exemption legislation in 2017, arguing that it wasn’t meeting even the modest target goals set for haredi draft and that it thus perpetuated inequality. Ever since, Netanyahu’s government has been bobbing and weaving to delay dealing with the issue. The new government won’t get too much more leeway from the Court.

I SEE TWO WAYS FORWARD that might square the circle.

The first is a moderate plan for haredi integration in the military drafted by Israel Democracy Institute Vice President Prof. Yedidia Stern and Dr. Chaim Zicherman in 2013.

The plan rejects Liberman’s confrontational demand for criminal sanctions and financial penalties against haredi men who do not serve in the military, and instead lays out a comprehensive plan of draft incentives and disincentives to be applied to haredi yeshivas.

Those institutions that help meet an annual draft goal would see state scholarships for the remaining students rise by 25 percent each year, while institutions that fail to contribute to draft quotas would see student scholarships cut by 25 percent, year after year until state scholarships amount to zero.

Such financial pressures might induce realistic and responsible behavior on the part of haredi community and its yeshiva leaders, and bring about an incremental rise in haredi enlistment; primarily of those haredi men who aren’t anyway studying seriously in yeshiva.

The other proposal – my proposal – is the vacation draft. This would allow haredi men to continue learning Torah while doing military or national service only during their yeshiva semester breaks, which total a whopping ten weeks of vacation time per year.

Consider: Almost every yeshiva and kollel in this country operates on the same academic calendar. Studies start at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul (August or September), with the first zman (yeshiva slang for semester) ending six weeks later before Yom Kippur. Then students and teachers are on vacation through Succot until the beginning of Cheshvan. Vacation time: Three weeks.

The five-month winter study semester concludes at the end of Adar, whence yeshivas are closed for the entire month of Nissan (including Passover). Vacation time: Another four weeks. The three-month summer semester ends at the beginning of Av, launching another vacation break, amounting to an additional three-to-four weeks.

Total vacation accrued, for all junior and senior kollel men, yeshiva boys, and yeshiva educators of all ranks and stripes: ten to eleven weeks annually. Ultra-Orthodox society calls this bein hazmanim (between semesters).

At these times, you’ll find haredi youth and haredi families travelling the country, visiting its parks, shopping in its malls, swimming in its pools, and even occasionally travelling abroad. Doing normal vacation stuff. And yes, they study Torah during these breaks as well, in less formal frameworks.

I say that the well-endowed-with-vacation haredim have an obligation to forgo at least some of their time “outside the tents of Torah” to share in the national burden. Call it giyus bein hazmanim, the vacation draft.

It could work like this: For, say, five out of their ten weeks of vacation each year, Ultra-Orthodox men would be drafted into specially-refined frameworks that meet rigorous kashrut and haredi modesty standards – ranging from haredi Nachal units to Magen David Adom, and from the army rabbinate to rescue services.

They would serve without missing a minute of any formal seder or zman, without missing a single class or exam, without disrupting their long-term rabbinic or Talmudic study plans, and without emptying-out the yeshivas (which is what the yeshiva deans fear most). And haredim can stay in the yeshivas and kollels for as long as they want – 20 or 30 or 40 years or a lifetime, if that is what they prefer (and can afford).

Some haredim might have to miss out on the luxury of having a Pesach seder at home or may find themselves spending Yom Kippur in an army hospital pushing wheelchairs – but that’s a small price to pay for national responsibility and unity.

Even after serving five or six weeks a year in the army (for multiple years), haredim would still be left on average with an additional four to five weeks of annual vacation. (That is much more than the rest of Israelis get. In the modern working world, few employees get more than 2-3 weeks paid vacation a year, and the self-employed can rarely afford even that).

In short, haredim have the time and the ability to serve the country without egregiously cutting back on Torah study and without abandoning their unique way of life – if they truly care to share in the national security burden of this country.

This proposal upholds the belief that the world of Torah study should be allowed to flourish without restriction in the State of Israel, and simultaneously the belief that it is morally unacceptable that an entire class of Israeli citizens automatically be released from the burden of militarily defending the country. And again, haredim won’t have to miss a single day of regular Kollel class.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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