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In Revisiting Draft Bill, Israeli Government Risks Drawing Ultra-orthodox Ire

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu vows to push through legislation requiring more haredim to serve in military

The chaotic scenes of last year’s Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) protests in Jerusalem are imprinted in the minds of many Israelis. Haredi men shouted angry chants, threw stones, and tussled with police. They blocked Jerusalem’s Light Rail and key thoroughfares, causing massive traffic disruptions, while ultra-Orthodox protesters followed their lead in other Israeli cities.

They were protesting against what they saw as the government’s plans to draft more ultra-Orthodox youth into the military. As it stands, members of the ultra-Orthodox community—which comprises about 10 percent of Israel’s population—are exempted from conscription at the age of eighteen, unlike the rest of the country’s Jewish citizens. While small numbers of ultra-Orthodox voluntarily enlist each year, most can easily opt-out simply by showing up at an IDF induction center and signing a few forms.

The issue has been a source of tension ever since Israel’s founding. The ultra-Orthodox believe that army service interferes with full-time religious study, a cardinal value of the haredi community. Critics, however, charge that the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority is not pulling its fair share of society’s weight, including working and paying taxes.

The issue became particularly heated in September 2017 when Israel’s High Court of Justice struck down a law regulating exemptions, ruling that it undermined the principle of equality before the law. The court gave the government one year to prepare the legal groundwork for a new arrangement.

The massive haredi protests began a few months later after two yeshiva students were arrested for not signing their exemption forms. Leaders of an extreme ultra-Orthodox group, the so-called Jerusalem Faction, and its sympathizers organized a “day of rage” which morphed into additional demonstrations.

Now the stakes are once again rising, as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that draft legislation on the issue will be put to a preliminary parliamentary vote as early as next week. He also promised “a discussion between all parts of the coalition toward a broad agreement for the second and third readings.” A bill must pass all three votes in the plenum to become law.

The new bill reportedly proposes establishing fixed yearly quotas for ultra-Orthodox enlistment that, if not fulfilled, would result in financial penalties on religious schools.

The government’s previous attempts to arrive at a compromise ended without success, dividing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fragile coalition which requires the support of ultra-Orthodox parties. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party supports the effort, but ultra-Orthodox coalition partners Shas and United Torah Judaism vehemently oppose it.

Another element is Netanyahu’s timing. Some analysts speculate that he may be using the issue to foster discontent which could allow him to call early elections. Responding to threats from his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, Netanyahu said, “I don’t want elections, but I’m not afraid of elections. If there are elections, I’ll be okay.”

The question observers are asking now is what has changed since the protests of 2017. Is the haredi community more favorable to enlistment or more intransigent as ever?

Prof. Dan Ben-David, Founder and President of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, told The Media Line that the government faces tough negotiations.

“The government’s main problem now is the High Court ruling that everyone must go to the army; and if you don’t go to the army you go to jail,” Ben-David said.

To avoid these sanctions, the government must find a way to deal with the haredim that will result in a law the court will accept.

“My concern is that current efforts are dealing with semantics and not with the crux of the problem, which is the education the haredim receive,” Ben-David contended. “We want them to go into the army but also want them to go to work. But we are only dealing with end-products—work and the army—where they don’t really have the skills to do either very well.”

“We are the only country in the developed world,” he continued, “that allows parents to prevent their kids from getting a core curriculum that will enable them to contribute to the country. So, if and when they go to work, they will have the ability to be something other than just laborers or kosher supervisors.”

Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, a writer and co-founder of Chochmat Nashim, an organization that combats extremism in Orthodox Jewish society, told The Media Line that even if leaders in the haredi community are willing to work towards a solution, they will not publically back the initiative.

“Certain haredi rabbis and heads of yeshivas [religious schools] are working in the backchannels for an agreement…as they know that not everybody can learn Torah full time,” she asserted. “But they can’t come out and say ‘yes, I agree, let’s draft’ because it goes against their ideology. It would undermine their way of life.”

Jaskoll explained that while ultra-Orthodox leaders might hash out an agreement behind closed doors, extremist members of the haredi community would surely protest again if the bill advances. But there are definitely haredi leaders who—though they would never declare it—are pragmatic in their approach to young members of their community who want to enter the workforce, study at university or serve in the army.

“The Jerusalem Faction is pretty much as radical as you can get,” Jaskoll concluded. “They will protest out of principle regardless of whatever version the draft law takes. But it is a small faction, and not the majority of haredim by any standard.”