Cabinet approves lower age of military service for Haredim

New plan offers military exemptions to Haredim who go to work or learn a trade in a government-sponsored program.

By Gil Tanenbaum, TPS

Israel’s government has approved the proposal of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, that the age for exemption from IDF service for young men from the Haredi sector be lowered to just 21 years of age. That is to say, once someone from Israel’s Haredi sector reaches the age of 21, he will no longer be eligible for the draft and, as such, will be able to end his Yeshiva studies.

Haredi youth will also have the option of joining Israel’s national emergency services system.

The plan for lowering the exemption age will take effect upon completion of the legislative process in the Knesset. The ministerial committee on legislation has been authorized to deal with the issue.

Currently, Haredi men in Israel study in Torah academies called yeshivot in order to qualify for a military deferment. There has been a great deal of conflict in Israeli society over the years over this policy, as the country’s secular population feels that the Haredim abuse the deferments and use them to avoid military service entirely.

This new plan will surely come as a surprise to those who voted for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party, as well as other members of Israel’s coalition government. These parties had called for ending draft deferments for the Haredim in their entirety, not for them to be exempted from service.

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But if the Likud Party and all of the Haredi parties vote in favor, then the new law is sure to pass in the Knesset.

However, the new law would only exempt from the draft those people who actually go to work, or to learn a trade, and then only through government-sponsored work and study programs. They will not be able to simply end their studies. Haredi men who simply drop their Torah study will still be eligible for the draft.

As things stand today, with the exception of medical exemptions, Haredi men remain in yeshivot indefinitely, in order to avoid military service. Also, today, people who enjoy a draft deferment for Torah study are not allowed to enroll in a university or any recognized professional college. They only become exempt once they have had a certain number of children or reach the age of 35.

According to the new plan, the exemption age will drop immediately to 21 and remain there for the next two years. After 24 months, the exemption age will be raised again to 22. Then, after another 12 months later, the exemption age will be raised to 23.

However, even when the exemption age is raised up to 22 and to 23, Haredi men will be able to be released from compulsory IDF service at age 21 provided that they join the labor market by undergoing professional training or training for jobs in security, emergency or rescue fields.

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A committee will also be established composed of representatives of the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Foreign Minister, which will be responsible for evaluating tracks for IDF service and national and civilian service. The committee will also formulate a new, wide-ranging and updated plan for the security, economic and social needs of Israel. The committee will present its conclusions by November 2022.

Prime Minister Bennett stated that “For decades the State of Israel has consistently chosen to cut off its nose to spite its face, i.e. out of anger over ultra-orthodox who do not serve [in the IDF], they were also compelled not to join the labor market until they were older.”

Bennet explained that with this plan, the government is ending this situation and opening the labor and employment markets to young Haredi men. The Prime Minister also alluded to the fact that any attempt to impose military service upon that community would require “tanks in Bnei Brak.”

“This is the long and correct road on behalf of the national interest,” he added. “Integrating the ultra-orthodox sector into the employment market is a goal of the highest order, for all of us. I am personally moved; this is a historic move for the future of Israel.”

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Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been one of the most vocal opponents of the continued draft deferments for the Haredi yeshiva students. However, he now says that it is more important for Israel’s economy to work to absorb young Haredim into the workforce.

Liberman explained this saying, “As the first Defense Minister of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, defined it, the purpose of the army is to protect the homeland but also to establish a ‘melting pot’ that unites all aspects of society. Our decision balances that melting pot with the needs of the economy today that needs another energy joining the world of employment.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz sees the move as a step forward towards the full military draft of Haredi youth in Israel. He stated, “This important move will be a bridge to the full service outline that I intend to promote in the coming months that will regulate once and for all the issue of service in the State of Israel.”