Solve Tal Law controversy by making IDF a paid, volunteer army

Israel’s modern history is defined by its ability to overcome existential challenges. Today Israel’s very identity faces precisely one such defining moment of tremendous historical import. The battle over drafting the ultra-Orthodox approached a crescendo on Aug. 1, when the Tal Law expired and the IDF began inducting the first of thousands of 18-year-old haredi men. The decades of sweeping this political hot potato under the carpet are over.

This debate has already brought tens of thousands of people — on both sides of the argument — to protests in the streets. It is incumbent upon Israel’s national leaders to find answers that will mend the deepening wounds — while also protecting national defense interests.

One solution that responds to both these needs is to effectively end the draft and recreate the IDF as a professional army. Such a force would be staffed only by those who truly believe in their nation’s ideals and are motivated by adequate compensation. As unconventional as such a proposal might sound in an Israel where IDF enlistment is a rite of passage and the nation and its military are seemingly joined at the hip, this might just be the move necessary to save our country from social meltdown.

Should haredim continue to defer this national responsibility while benefiting from continuing public financial support for their yeshiva study, the nation would run the risk of a true economic crisis. The haredim are by far the fastest-growing demographic group in Israel, ensuring that the cost of financing their Torah studies would cut further and further into the national budget in the coming years.

Israel’s leadership recently conceded that maintaining military deferments for haredi yeshiva students flies in the face of both logic and the best interests of our country. Earlier this year, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the status quo was illegal and that a solution must be found. When the Tal Law expired without such a solution in place, the draft of young haredi men commenced.

Still, the haredi political bloc, which holds considerable sway in our government, has not wavered in its demands that haredi youth not be called into the IDF or national service, realms they view as unresponsive to their commitment to a spiritually pure and strictly Torah-observant lifestyle.

Soldiers from the IDF’s Golani Brigade return to Israel after rescuing the bodies of their comrades killed in battle in Bint Jbail in South Lebanon, July 2006. photo/jta-brian hendler

Some more extreme ultra-Orthodox leaders actually said that army service constitutes a case where one should agree to be put to death rather than serve — a condition in Jewish law traditionally served for the most serious of transgressions. While such pronouncements are a minority opinion even within the haredi world, they do reflect the passions generated by this issue.

The creation of a professional fighting force is therefore an alternative that deserves serious consideration. While it would certainly help alleviate some degree of these bitter social tensions, a professional army also makes economic sense in a country like Israel. Those familiar with the IDF’s personnel structure concede that effective management could reduce manpower and costs.

The Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, in a study published in 2010, estimated that an IDF force where enlistment is by choice would cost the national treasury approximately 90 million shekels a year in wages. Compensation would be based on a soldier’s level of experience and comparable wages in the civilian sector. Combined with overall manpower reductions and increased productivity stemming from the fact that volunteer soldiers would be significantly more motivated than draftees, the IDF would usher in a new chapter in its illustrious history of defending our state.

This concept may require a complete re-evaluation of the role our military plays in our society and will be questioned by those who are unable to envision an IDF without a compulsory draft. But those who were committed to serving and defending the nation will continue to do so, inspired both by ideology and the lure of the almighty shekel. The IDF might have a lesser role to play as an educator and social worker, but perhaps Israel has evolved enough that such a change makes sense.

Most importantly, this new format will allow Israel to address social ills that threaten to starkly divide us and enable us to once again focus redoubled efforts on becoming a proud nation that is able to respond to the wider needs of all its people.

Corinne Sauer is the co-founder and director of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, an economic policy think tank.  She is the mother of five daughters: Two have completed their IDF service and the third is scheduled to enlist in December.