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Will court or government decide who will serve in the Israeli Army?

The lack of universal conscription has vexed Israeli society for decades.

SEPTEMBER 21, 2017 – JERUSALEM – Israel’s High Court of Justice, in answer to a petition from a civic watchdog group, convened on September 12 to strike down a legal amendment that gave ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshivas what amounted to a blanket exemption from military service. The court gave the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a year to legislate a more equitable framework, and if it doesn’t, universal conscription will kick in, with zero exemptions.

The lack of universal conscription has vexed Israeli society for decades.

The issue can be traced back to shortly after independence in 1948, when then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion sought a secure governing coalition. He turned to the small ultra-Orthodox parties of the time, and as a quid pro quo for their support, he promised a number of things. One was that some 400 of the community’s best and brightest would be given draft exemptions, allowing them to help replenish the ranks of religious scholars decimated by the Holocaust.

Over the years, the power of the ultra-Orthodox grew as they kept filling out coalitions in a country with numerous political parties, none capable of forming a government on its own. One side effect was the growth of those 400 exemptions to the point where any draft-age male studying in a yeshiva could avoid military duty. In recent decades, these students have numbered in the tens of thousands in any given draft year.

Needless to say, this posed a problem for the country’s social fabric. It was one thing for so many of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox to be on the dole, the heads of households busy splitting Talmudic hairs in yeshiva study halls rather than putting food on the table for their large families. But through the years, resentment built among the non-Orthodox with numerous wars and an onerous burden on those serving in uniform.

It came to the fore in 1999 when then-prime minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party, who had run on a platform that included military (or at least alternative) service for all, convened a panel to study the issue. The panel released its findings, and in July 2002 – by which time Barak had been replaced by the Likud’s Ariel Sharon in a special election for prime minister that left the political makeup of the Knesset intact – the Tal Law (named after the retired Israeli Supreme Court justice who had headed the panel) was enacted.

Perhaps the only major change under the law was that yeshiva students would now be given a choice: Unless they were singled out by teachers as top students, they would be allowed to defer their draft age to 22, at which point they would have to take a year off for government-funded vocational training and then an additional 16 months for military duty (followed by years of reserve duty). It was just as much a way to soothe those angered by the service inequities as it was to start weaning the ultra-Orthodox from the dole by having at least some join the work force.

It sounded good in theory, but either a lot of borderline students began turning into Torah and Talmud prodigies overnight or their rabbis were lowering their standards. The result is that the numbers never reached the level that had been hoped for, and in 2012, the High Court ruled the Tal Law illegal, saying it violated the principle of equality by discriminating against young secular and  national-religious men of draft age.

Now, just as there was no longer a law covering the vocational training and shortened military service for ultra-Orthodox men choosing this track, there was no longer a law authorizing deferments even for true yeshiva prodigies. The result? The military police began fanning out to round up draft dodgers, deeply angering the ultra-Orthodox community.

In the 2013 elections, the secularist Yesh Atid party became the second highest vote-getter after Netanyahu’s Likud, and after a little horse trading, it joined Netanyahu’s coalition. This made the ultra-Orthodox parties powerless, and their leaders, shaken to the core, made it clear that even if they were someday needed, they would never sit in a coalition with Yesh Atid.

Immediately, Yesh Atid began pushing legislation that cemented the criminalization of ultra-Orthodox draft dodging. But before this could take effect, new elections in 2015 resulted in Yesh Atid’s departure and the ultra-Orthodox parties’ return – with amendments quickly being made to undo most everything that had been done to effect equality in military service.

The reversal gave ultra-Orthodox extremists a sense of freedom of action. They began attacking young members of their communities who were willing to serve in homogeneous military units that evolved after the High Court’s 2012 ruling, verbally and physically assaulting them as they came home in uniform. The violence intensified when the extremists began gathering outside draft centers to protest a policy that merely required them to show up to get their deferments.

The howls of protest with which the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Netanyahu alliance greeted the September 12, 2017 ruling mandating everyone must serve were not long in coming.

Yaakov Litzman, who serves as health minister and chairs the United Torah Judaism party, with six Knesset seats, called the ruling “the worst and most wretched decision in the history of terrible decisions in the Jewish world.”

Interior Minister Arye Deri, who chairs the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, with seven Knesset seats, said it “again proves the serious disconnect between the … court and the Jewish people, who have known through all generations that what holds us together against persecution and decrees was Torah study. … It can’t be that we run for Knesset, spend lots of money to get elected, and it turns out we are run by the High Court. … If the judges want to run for office, they can.”
All indications are that both ultra-Orthodox parties will submit a bill seeking to get around the High Court, hitching their wagons to right-wing politicians who have bills in the works to prevent the legal system from interfering with political decisions.

The prime minister was on an official visit to Latin America when the court handed down its ruling, and he was not due back until immediately before the Rosh Hashanah holiday. As this went to press, it was not entirely clear whether the anti-court sentiments would trigger yet another coalition crisis for Netanyahu. One thing is clear though: His defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is a staunch secularist who has not lagged far behind the leader of Yesh Atid in his diatribes against the inordinate powers of the ultra-Orthodox.

“We have no intention of imprisoning anyone,” Lieberman said, referring to ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers, “and if we want to be effective and efficient, we have to do it wisely. But I can register each of them with a criminal record, and I can demand that the state not subsidize any of them [and] not a university or a yeshiva that accepts draft-dodgers.”

Whatever the political outcome – new legislation, a coalition reshuffle, or early elections – the only sure thing is that a certain social divide that has only widened in recent decades will not be narrowed anytime soon.

Lawrence Rifkin is a Jerusalem-based journalist.

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