The haredi draft crisis that will not disappear: A look at Israel’s ‘Amendment No. 26’

It seems as though many important political decisions and acts, including some military, are decided based on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s placing his political survival above all other considerations.

Among last week’s decisions, the most prominent and significant was a vote in the Knesset about the application of the Rule of Continuity to a bill brought to the 24th Knesset by then-defense minister Benny Gantz to amend the Defense Service Law (Amendment No. 26) regarding the integration of yeshiva students into the IDF.

This bill had been approved by the previous Knesset in the first reading in January 2022, not long before the premature dissolution of the 24th Knesset, and the end of the Government of Change, which had been led in rotation by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.

It was, without doubt, a rather extraordinary bill.

Some background: The Tal Law of 2002 basically exempted almost all yeshiva students from military service. A subsequent amendment (No. 21) to the Defense Service law had been declared by the High Court of Justice to be unconstitutional on grounds that it did not comply with the basic right for equality, and did not comply with the conditions of the limitations clause in Basic-Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Police disperse demonstrators during a protest against haredi IDF conscription, outside the High Court in Jerusalem, June 2, 2024 (credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Instead, the bill, first introduced by the 24th Knesset, tried to confront the issue of the enlistment of haredi youths for military service fairly and squarely, and gradually. For 2024, the number of designated enlistments to regular military service was to be 1,973; for 2036 it was expected to be 6,715 – extremely modest targets by any standard. 

But it also dealt with such issues regarding how the number of haredi enlistments is counted, in order to eliminate various bluffs (such as the inclusion in the numbers of former haredim); the provision of appropriate background conditions for haredi enlistees; alternative forms of non-military service; criteria for reducing state subsidies and other financial transfers to yeshivas on behalf of yeshiva students who shirk enlistment, etc.

Most of the 29 pages of the bill were devoted to explanatory notes about the issue, and its history, and are fascinating reading. (Copies of the bill, in Hebrew, are on the Knesset and the Israel Democracy Institute websites).

I am not sure whether the bill, which was brought to the plenum to enable its continued legislation in the current Knesset, included the detailed explanations that appeared in the original bill. But even if they were, I doubt whether the MKs who voted in favor of the continuity read them.

IT WAS NO secret that the bill was brought to the Knesset as a deceptive ploy by the current government to prevent the High Court of Justice from forcing the IDF to immediately start enlisting haredim for military service on the basis of the existing, unamended Defense Service Law, and from forcing the Finance Ministry from cutting payments to yeshivas where students are shirking military service.

The ploy was designed to prove to the High Court of Justice that the government is actually working on a law designed to fill the legislative lacuna on the issue, without really doing so.

The vote last Monday was not about the bill itself, which all the parties that had made up the opposition in the 24th Knesset had voted against. It was about allowing for a continuation of the legislative process of the bill, which was introduced in the previous Knesset. 

The result of the vote was that 63 of the government’s 64 MKs voted in favor, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant voting against it. Four MKs – Yuli Edelstein, Eli Dalal, Ohad Tal, and Tally Gotliv – who objected to the bill itself, primarily because it is too weak on the issue of equality, nevertheless voted in favor of the continuity in order to release the government from the need to restart the process of legislating the previous version of the bill, or a totally new version.

Haredi politicians opposition to draft, call it ‘anti-Jewish’

Most of the haredi MKs are opposed to the bill on principle. In January 2022, MK Moshe Gafni, of United Torah Judaism, referred to it as “a pathetic, degrading, humiliating, anti-Jewish law,” while Shas leader Arye Deri, who was reported to have convinced Netanyahu to employ the current ploy, had said that it is “designed to silence the Torah in the state of the Jews.” But all 18 haredi MKs voted last week in favor of its rejuvenation.

Gantz, who initiated this bill two years ago, reversed his position and voted last Monday against its continuity. He argued that the bill was originally submitted when the circumstances were different: Israel was not actively fighting on numerous fronts, and the IDF was not confronted with major shortages in manpower. Today, the repeated call-up of hundreds of thousands of reservists has been at an exorbitant cost to their private lives, businesses, and jobs, as well as to the economy in general.

Despite the result of the vote, the chances of Amendment No. 26, as currently worded, actually being enacted are close to nil, as are the chances that the Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, to which the bill was referred last week, will bring a more effective version for second and third readings (even though Edelstein, the chairperson, favors the defense burden being shared equally among all sectors of the Israeli society).

Netanyahu’s purpose is simply to waste time until next autumn, so that in the interim the haredi parties will not threaten his coalition, and the High Court of Justice will stay off his government’s back on this issue. He considers his political survival as paramount – and not what is best for the state and the IDF. What will happen after next autumn is anyone’s guess.

However, the problem of getting the haredim to share the defense burden will not disappear. This comes at a time when the IDF is short of manpower. There are plans to prolong the length of mandatory reserve duty and raise the age of those who are obliged to do regular reserve duty.

In 1948, when prime minister David Ben-Gurion first agreed to exempt yeshiva students from military service, eligible haredim numbered 400. In contrast, today there are 12,000 haredim who are eligible to be enlisted every year, although very few actually enlist.

The main haredi argument against enlisting their youth to military service is that the study of the Torah and prayers to God are more important to Israel’s security than the IDF. They also argue that the IDF encourages secularization, which they consider unacceptable.

The non-haredi Jewish majority – whether national religious, traditional, secular, Right, Left, or Center – does not accept these two arguments on principle. They believe that haredim who recognize the Zionist state, participate in its elections, and enjoy its welfare services, and other benefits, should finally realize that citizenship involves both rights and duties.

In a state that lives in constant existential danger, this includes military service, or accepted alternatives. Just amending the laws will not change any of this. The $64,000 question is: What will?

The writer worked in the Knesset for many years as a researcher, and has published extensively both journalistic and academic articles on current affairs and Israeli politics. Her most recent book, Israel’s Knesset Members – A Comparative Study of an Undefined Job, was published by Routledge.