Forward Thinking

Haredi Draft Refusers May Go to Jail Smiling

By Nathan Jeffay

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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteer to the Israeli Army’s Nahal Haredi brigade. / Getty Images

Plans to draft ultra-Orthodox men to Israel’s army are moving ahead — complete with a surprise.

There has been lots of tough talk regarding the need for universal service, but there was a widespread expectation that the government would stop short of criminalizing yeshiva students who refuse to serve. However, yesterday a committee formatting the draft law decided that draft refusers could face jail.

This has proved intensely controversial — and not only with Haredim, who are determined that they won’t be forced into the army. That’s because it raises a question mark about how realistic it really is to get Haredim into uniform.

How widespread would civil disobedience be if Haredim are drafted? How many would refuse to serve, whatever the sanctions? And how many places are there in Israeli prisons? Are there enough resolute Haredim and few enough prison cells to make the draft law, once passed, unworkable?

The deeper question is how a regime of criminalization instead of just fines will impact the Haredi response. The chance to try to paralyze a legal system could actually buoy the Haredi hardliners. The same goes for the chance to create martyrs to the Haredi cause.

Or perhaps the tough talk by Haredim will soften as serious sanctions — sanctions that could separate families and lead to tough sentences — and the threat of time behind bars promote compliance to the law, and give some of the community’s most resolute activists who have backed themselves into a corner justification for backing down.

To a large degree, the Knesset has just put the ball in Haredi hands.


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