- Following an Israeli Supreme Court ruling in February, the Israeli government must create new legislation to govern the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF by 1 August 2012.
- The entry of the secular, centrist Kadima party into the Israeli governing coalition means that the current government has a unique potential to address the palce of ultra-Orthodox and Arab-Israelis in mainstream Israeli society.
- Religious and political reasons have led, until now, to the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab citizens of Israel from military service.
- Addressing this issue is important not only for answering the demand of Israel’s secular middle-class to share more equally the burden of national service, but in integrating Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into the mainstream society and economy.
What is the current situation?
By law, all Israeli citizens over the age of 18 are required to enlist for military service. In practice, only 50% of Israelis are currently conscripted to military service. Without intervention, 60% of Israelis will be exempt from service by 2020.
To date, Jewish men and women, as well as Circassian and Druze men are subject to mandatory conscription. By law, Bedouin and Arab citizens of Israel are exempt from military service but are eligible to volunteer. A proportion of Bedouin men have traditionally enlisted, incentivised by financial benefits, subsidised loans and educational opportunities offered to Israelis who complete military service.
An arrangement dating back to the early days of the state also enables ultra-Orthodox Jews to defer military service as long as they are enrolled in religious seminaries and are not employed in any salaried work. When Israel was established in 1948 the deferral applied to 400 men. However, the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest growing in Israel with 7.7 children per family on average. Consequently, by 2011, the number of ultra-Orthodox men deferring the draft at the age of 18 had risen to 8,500, 13% of those required to enlist by law. In total, the service of 50,000 men aged 18-28 is currently deferred by this arrangement. By 2023, the IDF predicts that 25% of Jewish men will seek deferral on religious grounds, unless changes in the law are made.
Given the falling rate of conscription, the Tal Law, passed in 2001, sought alternative routes to increase ultra-Orthodox enlistment for military and civic service and ultimately, participation in the labour market. According to the law, at the age of 22, yeshiva students were provided with a decision year and could choose between one-year of civic service alongside a paying job or a shortened 16-month military service and future service in the reserves as an alternative to continuing to study. Special military units were set up for ultra-Orthodox men and the army provided training courses that were supposed to aid integration into the workforce.
Similarly, civic service volunteering was opened to any Israeli exempt from military service. This addressed primarily ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities who are least integrated in the social and economic fabric of Israeli society. At present, 73% of ultra-Orthodox men and 77% of Arab women do not take part in the labour force. In its current form, the law prohibits ultra-Orthodox men who defer military service from working, increasing levels of unemployment and poverty. As a result, Israel’s productivity rate is 28% lower than the OECD average.
The Tal law had very limited impact. The ultra-Orthodox establishment largely rejected it, fearing the encounter with general society may compromise strict religious doctrine, like the separation of men and women in public. Arab leaders in Israel argued that civic service must only be instituted once full equality has been achieved, and opposed the implied association with the military establishment. In addition, Israeli-Arab leaders opposed the replacement of low-paid workers in hospitals, schools other institutions with volunteers, undermining the livelihood of many Arabs in Israel. According to a University of Haifa study, 2,500 Israeli-Arabs are currently volunteering for civic service, 90% of whom are women, with the majority coming from upper middle class backgrounds.
In 2011, only 1,280 ultra-Orthodox men enlisted for military service and 1,070 volunteered for civic service. Though the trend for participation was notably increasing, it was still a very small proportion of the total ultra-Orthodox population, and far lower than the law’s drafters had hoped for. Nonetheless, in both the ultra-Orthodox community and amongst Arabs in Israel, there is a growing realisation that greater social and economic integration is needed, thought each community still needs to overcome significant internal resistance as well as barriers within Israel’s mainstream society.
The failure of the Tal Law to more equally divide the burden of military and civic service among all sectors of Israeli society led Israel’s Supreme Court, in February 2012, to deem the law discriminatory and unconstitutional. The law expires on 1 August and an alternative legislation must therefore be passed by that time. If no alternative law is approved the legal framework for the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men will be removed, placing thousands in threat of arrest if they do not enlist as required by law.
What is the process for agreeing new legislation?
The Committee for Advancing Equality and Sharing Burdens held its first meeting on 21 May. The committee is chaired by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner and includes representatives of the coalition factions as well as academics and representatives of the IDF.
Speaking during the committee’s opening session, PM Netanyahu outlined four guiding principles for the committee’s work: a more equal distribution of the civic burden; gradual implementation of any potential solution; addressing both Jews and Arabs who do not take part in military or civic service; and avoiding deepening social rifts.
Given the short timeframe available to the committee, it is likely that the solutions presented in the redrafted bill will not revolutionise the status quo. Some reforms may include:
- Gradually increasing the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in military service and limiting exemptions.
- Expanding the alternative service routes within the military and national-civic service.
- Setting a target date for compulsory service for all Israelis. This could take up to a decade and may be used to defer a comprehensive solution.
What are the hurdles and political implications?
Kadima’s willingness to lead the redrafting process illustrates the party’s need to take a considerable political risk to try and revive its standing with the electorate. Kadima is currently very weak in the polls. The party hopes to regain its status as the leading party representing Israel’s secular, centre ground by leading this high-stakes process. For decades, Israeli governments have avoided dealing with the conscription issue, knowing that the political costs outweigh the potential gains. Kadima now has five weeks to come up with a solution to this contentious issue. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is able to share credit for tackling an issue many Israelis care deeply about, while Kadima is likely to share the blame for failure, or the more likely scenario of a compromise that will leave most people unsatisfied.
The two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have boycotted the committee. Both the Sephardi and the Askenazi religious leadership have announced their opposition to changing the status quo. In practice, as a result of Kadima entering the coalition, the ultra-Orthodox parties will have to tread carefully. Leaving the coalition at this stage is unlikely to bring down the government, but would rather hand more power to Kadima, including influential ministerial portfolios.
The Arab political parties have also maintained their traditional opposition to the legislation of their participation in civic service. However, in a recent opinion piece, the co-directors of the Abraham Fund, an Israeli civil society organisation that works with government to seek greater equality for Arab citizens, argued that Arab citizens of Israel are ready to endorse civic service. However, they argued that the process must not be imposed from the top down and must include a broader strategy of addressing civil and social inequalities.