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PM aide: Gov’t conscription bill to lower age of exemption for Haredim from 26 to 21

New legislation to be advanced by the coalition in the coming months will lower the age at which Haredi yeshiva students can enter the workforce without fear of conscription from 26 to 21 or 22, a top aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday.

The change revealed by cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs in an interview to the Mishpacha magazine went even further than a recent decision passed by ministers, which said they would pass legislation lowering the exemption age from 26 to 23.

At present, tens of thousands of Haredi men either avoid working or work off the books amid fear of being drafted and losing special government stipends paid out to exempted yeshiva students younger than 26.

Fuchs did not say whether the law would also strip yeshiva students older than 21 of the special state stipends that are currently available to them until they turn 26. In 2020, those stipends were paid out to about 150,000 recipients costing taxpayers about NIS 1.2 billion ($326 million) annually, according to a Globes analysis. The figure is equivalent to 1.7% of the education ministry’s budget for 2020.

The initiative is likely to anger many secular Israelis seeking greater participation by army-age Haredi men in national service. Lowering the exemption age is seen by many secular Israelis as rewarding their skirting of military service by enabling them to enter the job market at around the same age as their serving peers.

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“We will lower the current exemption age of 26 to 21 or 22,” Fuchs told Mishpacha. “Effectively, whoever finishes yeshiva and wants to go out and work will be able to. They won’t enter the job market before their peers who served in the army, but they still will enter the real world and find their place in it.”

Cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Many non-Haredi promoters of this objective support lowering the exemption age. In a recent position paper, the liberal-leaning Israel Democracy Institution acknowledged that lowering the exemption age may seem like a “reward” for non-service, but was nonetheless desirable.

“On average, Haredi men marry at 22 and are already fathers at 24,” the paper states. “They do not have the time to acquire an academic or professional education and the need to provide for their children forces them to pursue low-paying jobs. Israeli society thus loses those young men twice: Once as soldiers and then again in the job market.”

In the interview with Mishpacha, Fuchs also said the cabinet “is pursuing a model promoting the enlistment law [exempting 21-year-old yeshiva students] alongside a law incentivizing service by ensuring rewards and breaks for those who do serve.”

Fuchs also declared that the coalition will seek to pass the draft exemption bill as a basic law, which he claimed would make it “immune to judicial review.”

While they can generally be passed without any special majority, basic Laws enjoy a special standing and are seen to make up the closest thing Israel has to a constitution. They can still be reviewed by the judiciary, but there is indeed no precedent for the striking down of a basic law by the High Court of Justice.

The latest such law approved by the Knesset was one passed last week, which bars courts from reviewing the reasonableness of government and ministerial decisions. It was the first piece of legislation that the government managed to pass from its judicial overhaul package, which has bitterly divided the country over the past seven months.

Soldiers in the IDF Golani Brigade hold a swearing-in ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on February 6, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Civil society groups and Opposition parties petitioned to have the bill struck down, and the Court of Justice will be holding a 15-panel hearing on the matter next month.

Fuchs indicated that the coalition was seeking to pass the draft exemption bill as a basic law to avoid a repeat of 2017 when the court struck down a related bill passed by another Haredi-backed Netanyahu government on the grounds that it increased the inequality of the “draft burden,” rather than reducing it.

A central reason why the two ultra-Orthodox parties have been among the biggest proponents of the judicial overhaul has been their desire to prevent the High Court from interfering in this specific piece of legislation. But rather than just passing the draft exemption bill as a basic law, they have aggressively backed legislating an override cause, which would allow the Knesset to overrule court decisions.

Netanyahu has told US media that he will bar the coalition from passing a bill that would allow the Knesset to override court decisions with a majority of just 61 MKs but he has avoided ruling out less extreme versions of an override clause, and the ultra-Orthodox parties insist that the measure is essential to their continued presence in the government.

Fuchs also addressed the coalition’s submission of another controversial bill as a basic law, one that proposes to equate Torah study with army service, calling its timing “bizarre” while adding that the Likud’s initial rejection of the bill had been too harsh.

MK Moshe Gafni leads a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Torah study bill prompted a torrent of condemnations from Opposition lawmakers, and even one of the bill’s coauthors, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni objected to the timing of the law’s submission.

The Torah study law “is not on the table and will not be advanced,” Likud said in a statement after the bill was submitted last week.

But in the Wednesday interview, Fuchs did not rule out the Torah study law. “If a need for a basic law on the study of the Torah arises, we will discuss it,” he said. The Likud party’s initial rejection of the idea was a “quick reaction to an issue with far-reaching political ramifications and so perhaps the reaction was a bit too harsh,” Fuchs told the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha weekly. The remarks indicated an about-face from Netanyahu’s party following Haredi displeasure with Likud’s quick rejection of the bill.

Whatever happens, “yeshiva students will not be forced to enlist and everybody knows this,” Fuchs said.

In its 2017 ruling, the High Court of Justice invalidated the current conscription law, which gave sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. It gave the government multiple deadlines and extensions for legislation of a new enlistment law and allowed the Defense Ministry to rely upon the current, struck-down law until a replacement is passed. The government’s 15th, and current, extension to legislate a solution is due to expire at the end of July. However, the government’s underlying, invalidated law had a provision forcing its expiration — and the government’s timeline — a month sooner, on June 30.

As a preemptive move, the government last month approved a decision enabling the military to continue excusing ultra-Orthodox Israelis from the IDF draft.

According to the text of the decision, the cabinet instructed Gallant to order the Israel Defense Forces to not enforce conscription within the Haredi community until March 31, 2024, by which time the government plans to have finalized a new enlistment law.