By MICHELE CHABIN ©2014 Religion News Service
Israel’s parliament passed a controversial law on March 12 requiring a
significant number of ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, young men to serve in the
military or perform civilian national service starting in 2017.
“This is a historic, important bill,” said Ayelet Shaked, who headed the
Knesset, or parliament, committee that prepared the bill. “For 65 years there
was an exemption for all yeshiva students and the change the coalition made is
proportionate and gradual and correct.”
The Yesh Atid party, which was voted into the Knesset on a platform
promising “an equal sharing of the national burden,” spearheaded the landmark
The yeshiva student exemptions have created a deep rift in Israel, where
nearly all men and women are drafted for up to three years of military service.
Almost all of Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens are exempt from the draft.
The law’s advocates view military service as a steppingstone toward the
integration of the haredi community into Israeli society. The community’s
norms, which are based on strict adherence to Jewish law, encourage large
families and Torah study over secular skills and employment. The result: Most
haredi families are poor, with many dependent on public assistance.
Haredi leaders maintain that full-time Torah study and prayer are vital
contributions to Israel’s Jewish well-being and that their sacrifices are
The draft law codifies a 2012 High Court ruling that invalidated the long-standing
military exemption for draft-age ultra-Orthodox men enrolled full time in
yeshivas. Haredi draft dodgers will be subject to the same criminal sanctions
already imposed on other draft dodgers.
Despite the court ruling, the government had repeatedly delayed the yeshiva
students’ conscription, fearing a political backlash from the country’s
religious parties and their constituents, who staged a huge demonstration
against the law in Jerusalem and a smaller one in Manhattan recently.
The law falls short of conscripting all yeshiva students. More than 1,000
students deemed especially gifted will be permitted to continue their yeshiva
studies, while 2,000 will be required to perform civilian national service.
The delay until 2017 means all 30,000 yeshiva students who are now of draft
age will receive an immediate service exemption and be permitted to enter the
workplace if they wish. An additional 20,000 students currently 18 to 22 years
old will receive an exemption at age 24 provided they stay in yeshiva until
Many of the law’s initial supporters are angered by these exemptions.
“This is a clear example of a law designed to make headlines and promote
Facebook posts, but will not benefit the public,” charged Uri Regev, CEO of
Hiddush, an organization that supports equality in Israeli society. “It will
not result in drafting yeshiva students, but instead, hands them large-scale
Meanwhile, haredi leaders instructed community members to ignore their draft
notices when they arrive in 2016. They also vowed to take political revenge on
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition.
Responding to the vote, Moshe Gafni, a haredi Knesset member, said: “Israel
today lost the right to call itself a Jewish or a democratic nation. The haredi
community will not forget this, and it will not forgive Netanyahu and his
partners for trampling on the delicate fabric that binds the different
communities in Israel.”
Others predicted the law will heal a rift in Israeli society.
Speaking before the Knesset, Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri,
the parliamentarian who headed the committee that drafted the bill, predicted
that “for the first time, an issue at the heart of the conflict of Israeli
society will be solved. Dramatic change will come.”