Opinion Articles

The Ultra-Orthodox Draft: A Test of the New Israeli Politics

As we approach the end of the current Knesset session, behind the scenes, there are rumors of a struggle regarding the future of the ultra-Orthodox draft, with some parties arguing that the Haredi conscription law should be passed swiftly, in a legislative coup that skips the standard procedures, while others favor deferring the legislation to the next session. While this may seem to be a technicality, it is actually a real test—an extremely important test—of the sincerity of those who profess their commitment to a new politics in Israel.

It is clearly in the interest of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party to complete the legislative process swiftly, since the general public in Israel is clamoring for a military service law and is not particularly interested in the details. If the law is passed immediately, it will allow Lapid to present his party as responsible for bringing about a historic achievement that creates a paradigm shift in relations between the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli society, and one of Yesh Atid’s main election promises will have been fulfilled. In addition, under the cover of the conscription law, it will be easier for Finance Minister Lapid to obscure the impact of the state budget on the middle class, one of Yesh Atid’s core constituencies.

The national interest in this case, however, is in conflict with the narrow interest of the party. Passing the law during the current Knesset session necessitates skipping the Knesset debate on one of the most important items on the national agenda. The State of Israel has been grappling with this issue for some 30 years. The Haredi draft has been discussed repeatedly by the Supreme Court, has brought tens of thousands of protesters to the streets, has been examined by a public commission, a professional committee, and a government committee (the Tal Commission, the Plesner Committee, and the Perry Committee respectively), and even led—albeit indirectly—to the early elections that resulted in the current government. Is it possible that just when this issue is to be decided, the government will bypass the Knesset and prevent the parliamentary debate on this matter?

Passing this bill by means of a legislative coup that circumvents the Knesset is a slap in the face to the democratic process. This opportunistic step should be rejected not only on procedural grounds but also because of its anticipated results. Presumably a Knesset debate would improve the final arrangement, as the law would be influenced by the full array of identities and interests of the relevant and affected parties. If the government overrides the Knesset, it will not only demean the legislature but it will lend its hand to the passage of a law that is not balanced.

And indeed, the bill that is being promoted by the government proposes a number of solutions that are unbalanced. First, it proposes imposing criminal sanctions, in the form of prolonged imprisonment, on Haredim who do not enlist when the law comes into effect in four years time. The result of this provision is likely to be one of two evils: if the law is implemented, it may lead to the mass imprisonment of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews and an accompanying descent into civil war; if the law is not implemented (which is likely), it will lead to unprecedented contempt for the rule of law in Israel. A Knesset debate would allow the public and its elected representatives to examine the questionable wisdom of this arrangement.

Second, the bill proposes that in the next four years, which coincides with the duration of the tenure of the current Knesset, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men will be exempted from the draft. While the bill has paid lip service to the need for recruitment goals for the interim period in the form of a statement that such goals will be determined in the future, it is clear that this is a dead letter since it does not include any measures to ensure compliance. A Knesset debate is necessary in order to address the difficult questions of whether this kind of mass exemption, which will be the main practical result of the government’s bill, meets the will of the people, fulfills the requirements of the High Court, and advances the ultimate goal of promoting equal sharing of the burden of military service in Israeli society.

Third, the government’s bill exempts 1,800 ultra-Orthodox men who are defined as top Torah scholars from conscription each year. However, it gives the authority to determine who those “diligent students” (matmidim) are to Haredi wheeler dealers. This is scandalous, both symbolically and practically. Is it appropriate to transfer the decision of who will risk his life and limb in the army and who will be exempt from service to private hands?! Will this not lead to corruption of the procedure by inside operators? The issue in question is one of the most significant processes of privatization ever carried out in Israel. We must not allow it to be implemented without a serious debate in the Knesset.

Old politics aims to achieve the goal of the party even when that goal is not in the national interest. Old politics is especially reprehensible when it ignores the basic rules of representative democracy. Lapid and his party have promised a new politics, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. At the moment, however, they are facing a great temptation to score a significant political victory at the expense of their far-sighted commitment to a new politics. Will they be able to conquer their desire? 

Prof. Yedidia Stern, Vice President of the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University, was a member of the Plesner Committee for Equality in National Service. 

This op-ed was originally published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on July 18, 2013. 

Read the proposal by Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern and Attorney Haim Zicherman on the Haredi draft.