It seems inevitable now that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community will be forced to contribute many more of its young people to army service in the not-too-distant future. This eventuality became all the more clear last week when Finance Minister Yair Lapid halted government payments to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas following an injunction issued by the High Court of Justice against the continued funding of yeshiva students who dodge the draft.
Lapid’s decision reflected determined efforts to force the ultra-Orthodox to contribute their fair share of soldiers stretching back at least a decade (and, in a less organized and popular way, to the birth of the state). The Tal Law passed by the Knesset in July 2002 – the very law ultra-Orthodox students have relied upon to avoid army service ever since – was in itself a significant step toward enforced, mandatory conscription for the majority of haredim. When the Tal Law expired a year and a half ago and Yesh Atid (Lapid’s political party, which campaigned on bringing the ultra-Orthodox to account) placed second in the January 2013 election, it became clear there was no turning back.
Even so, there was nothing wrong with the ultra-Orthodox protests last week, which followed the arrest of a yeshiva student for the crime of draft dodging. Yes, a few demonstrators proved more violent than the rest, but it’s important to remember why the haredi community is so bothered by the matter of providing soldiers to defend the state: because it truly believes doing so would be an act of rebellion against God. In the end, just because the law compels Israel down this path doesn’t mean Israelis shouldn’t show some sensitivity toward the many ultra-Orthodox Jews facing a radically different future.
In the wake of the haredi protests, a schism developed within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Lapid and the Yesh Atid ranks demanded that ultra-Orthodox draft-dodgers face criminal prosecution, while the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi faction, led by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, argued financial sanctions alone are sufficient. Fining yeshiva students who refuse the army isn’t a long-term solution – that path leads to allowing any Israeli to pay their way out of the draft, an arrangement many wealthy families would likely find attractive as an alternative to service.
Omitting criminal sanctions might be reasonable for now to ease the ultra-Orthodox transition into a new reality, but, ultimately, haredi yeshiva students, with few exceptions, should face the same protocol as other Israelis, and that means you get to choose between going to the army or going to jail.
There remains the question of whether the IDF in fact needs these thousands of extra ultra-Orthodox recruits. On this matter, authorities are of two minds – some say the army has more than enough soldiers without adding the ultra-Orthodox (who are less likely to be educated in the sorts of subject areas that would come in handy in training and combat), while others claim the IDF can always find useful places to plug in new bodies.
But even if the army doesn’t need the ultra-Orthodox, there must be some way the haredim can give back to the state, beyond the walls of the yeshiva.
What’s fair is fair.