Government and army Offering new incentives despite protests
It seemed like a good idea in the early days of the Jewish state. After European Jewish scholarship was all but wiped out in the Holocaust, several ultra-Orthodox rabbis asked then-leader of the pre-statehood years of the British Mandate David Ben Gurion to grant a draft exemption to 400 ultra-Orthodox Jewish students. Instead of being drafted, they would study Torah and other Jewish texts full-time.
Almost seventy years later, the number of those exempt has swelled to more than 60,000 despite several previous efforts to draft the ultra-Orthodox. Now the army is trying the carrot instead of the stick approach, announcing that it has appointed a Lieutenant Colonel to oversee all ultra-Orthodox, also known as haredim, that serve in the IDF.
Additionally, haredi soldiers will be able to spend the last eight months of service finishing their high-school diplomas; this, because most ultra-Orthodox schools focus exclusively on Jewish texts such as the Bible and Talmud, leaving their graduates with only minimal training in the sciences, math and English.
“It is important that there be a senior official that understands haredim and that there is a specific address to go to,” Yedidia Stern, Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute told The Media Line. “It is not so easy to understand the other when the other is haredi.”
According to the Israeli army there are 6,600 haredis currently enlisted, 400 of whom are career soldiers. Most of them serve in special units and the army makes every effort to accommodate their religious needs, including providing them with food that complies with the strictest standards of Jewish dietary laws, called “mehadrin” in Hebrew.
“We have mehadrin food for them, and we make sure that they have time every day to study Torah,” an Israeli army officer in charge of a group of haredi soldiers revealed to The Media Line on condition of anonymity. “Other than that, they are regular soldiers.”
These accommodations come as a response to ultra-Orthodox fears that joining the army will force them to abandon their religious lifestyle. The presence of female soldiers is especially challenging, as haredi men are not permitted to be alone with women, with the exception of relatives. They are also not permitted to hear women sing, which is common practice at military ceremonies.
The renewed push to draft the ultra-Orthodox comes just weeks after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the current rule that apply to haredim, in which all full-time yeshiva (Jewish seminary) students receive an automatic draft exemption, is illegal.
The court gave the government one year to submit new legislation to act as a blueprint for the conscription of haredim into the IDF.
The issue of drafting the haredim has long been a hot potato in Israel. Previous attempts have sparked violent protests, most recently earlier this month. The haredi parties are part of the governing coalition of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and have used their power to get both army exemptions and financial support for their religious institutions.
Overall, the number of Jewish Israelis avoiding the draft is increasing, with recent government statistics showing that in 2016 only 78 percent of male Jews aged 18 years old and 58 percent of Jewish women were drafted. There has also been a decline in willingness to serve in fighting units, which the army is trying to offset by providing special benefits for combat soldiers.
Arab citizens of Israel (representing about 20 percent of the country’s total population) are likewise exempt from army service, to avoid the potentially compromising situation in which they might fight against other Arabs.
However, there are growing calls in Israel for all of those exempt for any reason to do some type of national service.
The IDF has historically been viewed as a melting pot for Israelis of all backgrounds. “The army needs every 18-year-old who can be drafted and can contribute to the state,” the commander of the haredi soldiers said. “The army also helps them integrate into Israeli society.”
Service in the army is also often prelude to success in the workplace. All outgoing soldiers receive a grant that can be used for at least one year of tuition, and combat soldiers receive several years-worth of tuition.
A recent study found that just 51 percent of haredi males are employed, a rate that has dropped over the past 18 months. Yedidia Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute says that 47 percent of all first-graders in Israel are either haredi or Arab and it is essential for Israel that they eventually join the work force.
Whereas in the haredi sector almost all women work, in the Arab sector, only about 22 percent of women work outside of their homes, a reality attributed mainly to conservative norms and traditions.
Stern said that despite the tensions he is optimistic about the future of haredim in Israeli society.
“If we mobilize them without being paternalistic and without challenging their culture, but open the door and allow them to choose, they will join us, and Israel will become one of the most developed countries in the world.”