The argument over military service for the ultra-Orthodox in Israel is generally framed around fairness.
But as the country’s new unity government works to craft a bill to replace the Tal Law for religious exemptions, which expires Aug. 1, some see economic considerations as well.
Israel’s new minister of education, Gideon Saar, says an infusion of haredi soldiers could thicken the ranks of the IDF enough to shorten compulsory military duty for all soldiers by six months. (Men now serve three years, women two.) This would allow young men and women to enter universities and, ultimately the work force, that much sooner.
“If we will be able to increase the percentage of youngsters that will go to national duty it might be easier to shorten the average service,” Saar told The Jewish Week during a visit to New York this week. “This is still in discussion and will be brought for a decision by the government during the summer [Knesset] session.”
In his own view, Saar, who was appointed at the end of March, said, “it should be considered very carefully to make sure it doesn’t hurt the army.” He said that such a change had the support of the finance minister but input was needed from IDF leaders. “I believe that the current unity government established a week ago could promote the change.”
Saar said his office was working to minimize the impact of military service on academic careers by adding more college-level courses in high schools to better prepare future soldiers.
“On one hand we want to [identify] talented students, but we also want to bridge this phenomenon that in our country
students are beginning to learn at an older age,” said the minister.
He noted that Israel is already ranked second highest in the world in higher education by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with 45 percent of the population earning college degrees, second only to Canada’s 50 percent.
Discharged soldiers get only a stipend toward college, not a free education, but Israeli universities are inexpensive, averaging $3,000-$3,500 per year.
“[The army] does not seriously affect the numbers that go to higher education, but in terms of our economy it’s a problem because we are going later into the labor market,” said Saar.
Protesters have been putting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s feet to the fire to end religious exemptions, and while some change in the law seems inevitable, he has pledged to religious parties that they will be included in the drafting of a new law. An outright draft seems unlikely, but other solutions include a non-military form of national service.
That idea is supported by the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement, which has been lobbying for mandatory secular education in religious schools.
“The best way to help the economy is to have Orthodox children learn the core curriculum: English, math and physics and be able to enter the job market, as they do in New York City,” said Anat Hoffman, executive director of IRAC. “By the year 2020 a quarter of the student body in Israel will be going to schools that do not teach the core curriculum.”
Noting that a mass infusion of haredim could challenge the culture of the army — there has already been controversy over events at which female soldiers sing — Hoffman said IRAC would rather see them “doing national service to the state in their own neighborhood in health and education.”