Saturday, May 25, 2024

A Black Day for the Torah World: Yeshiva Draft Bill Passes First Knesset Reading

The Ponovezher Rov was not only a brilliant talmid chochom, rov and rosh yeshiva, but also a gifted orator and skilled debater. In Ponovezh, while he was rov and rosh yeshiva, he represented the Jewish community in the Lithuanian senate. In the early days of the State of Israel, it was proposed that the Rov serve in the Knesset to defend the rights of the religious community. He refused, saying that if he joined, he would have to tear kriyah every day and he didn't have enough shirts. Though there have been countless causes for kriyah in that building, rarely has it taken place, and definitely not the way it did on Tuesday, when the Knesset passed the first reading of the bill removing the exemption of bnei Torah from serving in the Israeli army and threatening yeshiva bochurim with fines and jail.

Crying out, “This is a dark day for the Israeli Knesset,” chareidi MKs tore kriyah to mourn the first reading of the yeshiva draft bill. The bill easily passed this first major hurdle, garnering 66 votes versus 21 at the conclusion of a six-hour debate that ended at close to 5 a.m.


The most dramatic moment of the verbal jousting was when UTJ MK Meir Porush handcuffed himself to the Knesset podium, saying that this was a sign of identification with the yeshiva bochurim whom the law threatens with imprisonment.


“The bnei yeshivos will listen to the rabbonim, admorim and roshei yeshivos,” he declared. “When they tell them to go to jail, they will willingly go to jail in chains. They cannot tear themselves away from the Torah. I am standing here today in the name of these people.”


It took ushers several minutes to unlock Porush from the podium and lead him away as he shouted to a placid Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu that it was all his fault and that he was the guilty party in the travesty taking place in the country.


Following him at the podium and crying out, “Avinu Malkeinu, kera ro’a gezar dineinu,” UTJ MK Moshe Gafni castigated Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the person most responsible for the edict, saying, “It is a disgrace that someone with a cynical smile is running the country – he is the true prime minister.”


Earlier, as the bill’s author, Minister Yaakov Peri, was about to present the legislation, chareidi MKs demonstratively walked out to recite Selichos and tefillos opposite the entrance to the Knesset plenum. Passersby gaped in amazement at an event unparalleled in the annals of the Knesset as Meir Porush began reciting a number of pirkei Tehillim with the crowd. This was followed by the recital of Selichos after which Porush blew 30 shofar blasts. The tefillah concluded with the singing of the posuk, “Utzu eitzah vesufor – Take council and it will be annulled.”


Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman spent the night before reciting Tehillim and said that the threat hanging over the yeshiva world prevented him from sleeping the entire night.


During the Knesset debate, chareidi MKs castigated the army bill and its authors.


“This day will be remembered for generations as one when the government of Israel decided to wage war against the Torah of Israel,” said UTJ MK Yisroel Eichler. “Whoever raises his hand in favor of this bill will not be forgiven or forgotten.”


Aryeh Deri of Shas compared yeshiva bochurim to members of the crack Sayeret Matkal (Reconnaissance Unit) of the IDF and said, “I have no delusions that I can convince someone who is not part of the Torah world that someone who is a man of Torah and studies Torah doesn’t even understand the expression of shivyon banetel. They don’t realize that learning Torah non-stop is carrying the burden. [Yair Lapid] is leading a patronizing and inflammatory discourse. The whole purpose of this bill is to cut chareidim out of society.”


Holding a Chumash Devorim in his hand,ShasMK Yitzchok Cohen cited the Baal Haturim who writes that the Torah of talmidei chachomim saves those who have to work for a living.


MK Eli Yishai of Shas said that the draft law threatened to split the nation into two.


“Do you really want all the chareidim in the army? What a pretense! What nonsense!” he said. “…The process begun in the Knesset today will end with the nation tearing apart. I say this with pain out of many years of experience in the Knesset and Israeli governments. You are cutting off the branch the whole nation sits on.”


In its present form, the draft bill demands that any bochur not enlisting in the army will be no different than draft dodgers of the regular populace who are subject to the Law for the Security Services of 1986 and liable to criminal sanctions, including incarceration in a military jail. The Attorney General of the Knesset said it was impossible for the bill to pass its next two readings during the Knesset’s summer session and that it would wait for the winter session in about four months. Meanwhile, the Knesset voted in a special committee that included MKs Meir Porush of UTJ and Ariel Attias of Shas to prepare the bill for its second and third readings. It is expected to undergo various changes before it becomes law.  




Earlier in the day, the Knesset discussed a number of no confidence motions related to economical and political affairs. UTJ submitted a motion bearing the title “The Finance Minister’s incitement and harassment of the chareidi public in order to hide the edicts made against the general public and thus cause increased polarization of society.”


Lapid responded to this by saying, “Is it incitement to tell the chareidi public that all I want is to give it the same rights I want for my son, daughter, or myself? [There will be] no more excessive privileges, no more inflated budgets. No one is inciting against you. We simply returned the country to normalcy.”


Lapid also tried his hand at Biblical exegesis.  


“In the Aseret Hadibrot, it says, ‘Six days you shall labor and do all your work,’ not six days you shall sit in yeshiva while someone else pays the bills…,” he continued. “Your parents went in the footsteps of the Rambam who said, ‘Whoever decides to learn and not work, and lives off charity, has desecrated the Name… Whoever divides the people into good and bad distances Moshiach. Whoever increases hatred in Israel distances the coming of Moshiach…


The gedolei Yisroel continue to say that the best way to fight the draft edict is to learn more Torah. Rav Shteinman advised a gevir to donate to yeshivos bein hazemanim, explaining that “the annulment of the edict depends on the war of Torah.” In response, the gevir donated $4 million and announcements were published to encourage bnei Torah to participate to an even greater extent in such yeshivos.


“Fearful edicts threaten to destroy the yeshivos, kollelim, and talmudei Torah, which are the foundation of the world,” the notices said.”In accordance with the ruling of our rabbonim that annulment of the edict depends on the war of Torah and to add uninterrupted hours of Torah learning, we come with an urgent appeal leSheim Shomayim that every community set up and support yeshivos bein hazemanim for avreichim and bochurim in these days that need great heavenly mercy in order to remove the evil decree. Rabbonim and gabba’im of communities interested in generous funding for this purpose should immediately contact etc.”




MK Yisroel Eichler of UTJ angered the Habayit Hayehudi party by saying that the breakthrough in Israel-Palestinian peace talks was Divine retribution for the Religious Zionist party’s alliance with Lapid, which enabled him to become the greatest persecutor of the Torah world Israel has known.


“Today, I met the head of Habayit Hayehudi and told him that Hashem sent them many clear warnings, especially the US Secretary of State’s crusade to uproot the settlements of Yehuda and Shomron, and the EU decision on Tisha B’Av to boycott occupied territories,” Eichler said. “The timing should warn them to not raise a hand against Toras Yisroel and not to starve talmud Torah children. I hope they understand the clear heavenly message that nothing else [but Torah] can help. I hope that the G-d-fearing Jews among the Habayit Hayehudi and Likud voters stop the draft edict before more punishments befall us.”


Bayit Meshutaf, a secular division of Habayit Hayehudi, sharply denounced Eichler’s attempt “to explain Hashem’s will.” In response, Eichler cited the Rambam’s ruling in Hilchos Taanis that we are obligated to presume results from our sins: Keeping fast days “is of the ways of repentance, for when trouble come and people cry out and pray about it, everyone knows that evil came upon them because of their evil deeds…and this will cause the trouble to be removed from them.”




Previously, this week, the Knesset authorized three measures designed to eradicate Israel’s chareidi schools and talmudei Torah.


The first statute followed Finance Ministry allegations of serious shortcomings in the management of Shas’s schools, including nepotism, transfer of funds for uses different than those specified by the authorities, and general problems in the chareidi school system. In reaction, Education Minister Shai Piron set about dismantling the chareidi education department of his ministry and replacing it with a “chareidi public school district.” This is the beginning of an attempt to put chareidi schools under the government’s direct control.


Piron’s innovation prompted the resignation of Yehuda Pinski, who was responsible for chareidi education in the Education Ministry until now. He refused to have any part in it. Cheder principals said that in accordance with the instructions of Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, they would boycott a meeting arranged in Bnei Brak to introduce Piron’s new system.


Because of the Finance Ministry allegations, the funds of Shas’s Ma’ayan Hachinuch schools will be transferred to each approved school through the Education Ministry instead of being distributed by Shas’s educational network, as they were until now, to ensure that the money goes where the government wants it.


Aside from this paralyzing move, Piron imposed a raft of Stalinist rules over Shas’s schools, aimed to scrutinize their every move. These rules include inspections of pay ledgers from the past 3 to 5 years and adding 15 non-chareidi inspectors to certify that schools stick to teaching schedules and budgets. Funding and wage subsidies will hinge on the monthly submission of hours taught and payments made.


“Institutions that do not submit reports will not receive funding, and certainly will not receive retroactive [funding],” Piron warned.


The Education Ministry is also drafting a raft of conditions schools must be prepared to comply with by the start of the school year. Unprepared schools could be ordered to shut down.


The second edict is a drastic reduction in the funding of talmudei Torah.


Torah schools have always been discriminated against. While regular schools receive full funding from the government and local authorities, chareidi schools always received far less. “Acknowledged unofficial schools,” such as those of Ma’ayan Hachinuch of Shas and Chinuch Atzmai, received up to 75% of normal funding until now, while “exempt institutions” (most talmudei Torah) received 55% of normal funding. Even this amount was too much for the ruling coalition.


The Knesset Education Committee decided that exempt institutions will only continue to receive 55% in subsidies if they follow the government-designed Liba program, which includes English, Hebrew and math. Chadorim that do not comply will receive only 30% of regular funding. Since the Knesset has calculated that the supposed 55% received by chareidi schools is actually only 30 to 35% of regular funding, the amount chareidi schools receive will actually plummet to 10%. The decrease will take place gradually over four years.


The vote of approval for this measure passed by one vote after chareidi MKs at the meeting fought against it for a whole day. The controversy turned into a shouting match between MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ and Ruth Calderon of Yesh Atid, starting when Gafni said that the link between funding and Liba studies was inappropriate, since the whole purpose of the law was to appease MKs of Yesh Atid who need no excuses to outlaw Torah learning. Gafni added that Lapid ran his party like “North Korea, with MKs doing only what the leader says.”


Ruth Calderon took offense with this.


“On the first day after Tisha B’Av, you spread sinas chinom,” she retorted. “I do not wish to hear your slanderous talk.”


Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie justified the law with an oft repeated argument of her party’s.


“Opposition to this bill from the chareidi leadership does not reflect the mood of the chareidi street,which is interested in core curriculum studies, to acquire a profession, and to support themselves in dignity,” she said. “This is not coercive. The chareidi education system will not be obligated to study the core curriculum…but it will not be able to continue to ignore decisions of the state and at the same time continue to receive funding.”


The third shoe to fall was the Knesset’s approval of a proposal to do away with the six-year-old Nahari Law, which required local authorities to fund chareidi schools such as those of Chinuch Atzmai and Ma’ayan Hachinuch. This law made the level of funding for chareidi schools almost equal to that of regular schools, contributing so much that its abolition will save local authorities about 100 million shekels. Local authorities will provide 50% of prior funding for the next school year. The following year, they will not be obligated to deliver any financial support at all. The law still has to go through two more readings.


Education Minister Shai Piron may have little cash for chareidi schools and yeshivos, but he had plenty to spare for a group of pluralistic so-called botei medrash that include Reform, Conservative, and secular programs in curriculums that include Torah, philosophy, ancient history, and general religious thought. During a meeting with the Knesset-sponsored Jewish Renewal Movement, headed by MK Ruth Kalderon of Yesh Atid and MK Yitzchok Herzog of Labor, Piron announced that initial funding for the programs would be 15 million shekels.


“I know this is not enough, but it’s a start,” he said. “It is appropriate to announce this on the eve of Tisha B’Av, as I see this as a way to rebuild the Bais Hamikdosh, and I hope that we will be able to inspire and influence many other things in this country.”


In a boastful letter to supporters, Finance Minister Lapid wrote, “Most important of all is that this time, the first time for many years, before going to the middle class we went to all those who were invulnerable until now. We sharply cut yeshiva funding, schools where Liba is not taught, housing funds earmarked only for chareidim, and we annulled the Nahari Law.”




A number of rabbonim close to Rav Ovadiah Yosef held a conciliatory meeting with senior rabbonim of the Religious Zionist camp and discussed pertinent issues, such as the yeshiva draft and the cut to Torahfunding. This was after Rav Sholom Cohen of the Moetzet Chachmei HaTorah spoke against the leaders of the Habayit Hayehudi party and their supporters who proclaimed war against yeshivos and the Torah world.


In his Motzoei Shabbos shiur, Rav Ovadiah Yosef said he was “certain that [Rav Cohen] did not have everyone who wears a knitted kippah in mind.”


“Does a kippah testify who a person is?” Rav Ovadiah said. “He only referred to certain politicians who left the Source of Life and collaborate with people who have made edicts against the Torahworld. The other knitted kippot are all beloved. I never differentiated between people who wear a knitted kippah and those who wear a black one.”


The conciliatory meeting was instigated by Gershon Mesika, mayor of the Shomron regional council, who is close to Rav Shmuel Eliyahu. Religious Zionists were represented by Rav Shmuel Eliyahu; Rav Chaim Druckman, head of the Bnei Akiva yeshivas; and Rav Elyakim Lavanon, rov of the Shomron regional council. Sefardi rabbonim included Rav Reuven Elbaz, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ohr Hachaim; Rav Boruch Shraga, head of the botei din in Yerushalayim; Rav Yitzchok Cohen, rov of Yerushalayim’s Shmuel Hanovi neighborhood; and Rav Meir Mazus, rov of the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood.


The rabbonim wrote that “when the whole Torah world is treated with mutual respect, the stage will be set for reaching agreements on all matters subject to disagreement.”




In the teeth of opposition, Finance Minister Lapid was forced to surrender at least some of his vicious budget plans. He and chairman of the monetary council Nissan Slomiansky agreed to annul both a proposed tax imposed on anyone buying a second apartment and a proposed law imposing monthly health insurance and social security payments on unemployed housewives. Also, instead of a general income tax hike of 1.5%, the rise will be differential, starting at 1% for salaries up to 14,000 shekels a month and rising to 1.5% and 2% for higher salaries.


Although Lapid kept the new law reducing child allowances to a paltry 140 shekels monthly per child on course, allowances for children born before 2003 will be left unchanged. Opposition members fought the proposal for hours, claiming that it was a mortal blow against many families with no justification.


Lapid was shocked to hear that a proposal he favored, which would deny reductions in city rates to poor people unless they proved they cannot work, was struck off the books. MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ said that these small victories against Lapid indicated that more could be achieved.


“I congratulate the opposition parties whose obstinate, united struggle forced the Finance Minister to surrender and announce a decrease in the cutbacks,” he said. “I call upon the prime minister and finance minister to spare the middle and poor classes and find an alternative for the budget cuts that are still a harsh blow for the Israeli public. The step taken in the monetary council this morning once again proves that the cutbacks program of the finance ministry is not a heavenly decree.”




Newly released Tax Authority records partially revealed “where the money has gone.” As Israel tightens its belt to reduce an $11 billion deficit, the public discovered that five leading public companies were granted almost $5 billion in tax breaks between 2006 and 2011. This is equivalent to 8% of the revenue collected from all of Israel’s corporations during that period. The figures were only released after the financial daily Globe petitioned the Supreme Court to force the release of tax breaks enjoyed by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Check Point Software Technologies, Israel Chemicals, Elbit Systems, Israel Oil Refineries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems under Israel’s Encouragement of Capital Investment Law.


Opposition parties said that the revelation was symptomatic of Israel’s favoring the rich over the poor.


“The small and medium-size businesses that make up 99% of businesses in Israel are struggling to stay afloat under the credit crunch, while the government is giving the strong conglomerates [tax] breaks left and right,” said Opposition Leader MK Shelly Yachimovich of Labor. “There is no justification for it, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sixteen billion shekels in tax breaks over a period of five years amounts to an earthquake in terms of economic policies.”


The five companies insist that Israel gains from their tax breaks. Teva said it “invested considerable resources around the country and in particular in the periphery… As a result of this law and of Teva’s investments, Israel has become a biotech power and is one of the world’s largest per capita manufacturers of life-saving medicine. Teva believes that the underlying policy behind this law helps build Israel’s industrial and manufacturing foundation, in particular in the country’s periphery. Such policy creates incentives for Israeli business and helps it support the growth, progress and prosperity of the State of Israel.”


The scandal unearthed by Globes is symptomatic of a pervading malaise. Until now, the Encouragement of Capital Investment Law legislated in 1959 enabled some of Israel’s largest corporations to pay only a small percentage of income and sometimes no tax at all due to Israel’s struggle to keep companies from moving overseas. The government claims that such injustice will be largely eradicated towards the end of the decade.


Another source of hemorrhaging funds was highlighted in a report of state comptroller Yosef Shapira, who wrote that Yehuda and Shomron settlements set up by the Department for Settlement in Yehuda and Shomron owe the country hundreds of millions of shekels in unpaid land leases. The state simply neglected to collect the money ever since the settlements were established in the 1970s. Neighboring settlements established by the Housing Ministry have paid their dues. 87 out of 120 settlements in Area C have failed to pay for their land and 25 of 38 gas stations in the area do not pay license fees and haven’t bothered to sign license forms for years.


What excuse did the Commissioner of Abandoned and Government Property in Yehuda and Shomron give for the mismanagement? Lack of manpower to collect the bills. The comptroller concluded that when it comes to matters of planning, building, water and transportation in Yehuda and Shomron, “every person does what is right in his eyes.”




Israel’s Port Labor Unions threatened to strike in reaction to the government’s decision to build private ports in Ashdod and Haifa. The workers claim that new ports will wreck the financial stability of existing ones and will undermine the conditions of port employees and job security.


In reaction to the strike threat, Transportation National Infrastructure and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz drafted an Arbitration Law which would forbid sector-wide strike of services essential for the country’s economy, including sea ports and Ben-Gurion International Airport. The proposed law would require arbitration to resolve any major labor dispute.


Finance Minister Lapid said that threats would get the unions nowhere.


“The tender to develop and operate new ports is essential as a step to move the Israeli economy forward and is necessary to lower the cost of living,” he said. “Threatening to strike, the labor unions’ aggressive measures, they won’t prevent us from taking the appropriate steps for the sake of the Israeli public and economy.”




Accountant Moshe Leon, chairman of the Yerushalayim Development Authority, officially announced that he will run against Yerushalayim Mayor Nir Barkat for leadership of the city. In response, Barkat’s party said that “it was very surprising that a person who lived his whole life in Givatayim, never bought a home in Yerushalayim, never paid rates in the city, and never educated his children in Yerushalayim thinks he can run for mayor of the city.”


At a press conference, Leon emphasized his love and attachment for Yerushalayim and tried to dispel notions that he has special links with the chareidim.


“Yerushalayim is not just any town, but the center of the world,” he said. “I come to Yerushalayim out of constant love and concern. As chairman of the Yerushalayim Development Authority, I have contributed to the city’s development. I promise to look after the needs of every neighborhood and see that the various kehillos coexist peacefully… I think it is irrelevant to ask about my attitude towards the chareidim and whether they will get more or less. In fact, I will continue to strengthen all the residents, not just the chareidim.


Asked whether he had any agreements with chareidi parties, he unequivocally replied, “I have no agreement with any party. That will wait until after the elections.”




In response to being barred from the Kosel ezras noshim by chareidi women last Rosh Chodesh, the Women of the Wall appealed for more people to join their next prayer meeting to prevent a repeat occurrence.


“The future of women’s status in particular and of Jews in general at the Kosel rests in the balance,” they wrote. “Even after getting legal recognition of our right to pray in our way, they still forbid us to read the Torah in the ezras noshim. On Rosh Chodesh Av, men and women of many Jewish streams were physically halted at the entrance to the Kosel. 200 police watched as people protested our prayers.”


The movement called upon people from all over Israel to join their next prayer meeting on Rosh Chodesh Elul, promising free transportation for all participants.




For five years, Egged kept women out of its bus ads in Yerushalayim out of consideration for the chareidi public. Now the company plans to bring them back in response to a High Court petition presented by Rochel Azariah, a city councilor of the anti-religious Meretz party. She claimed that avoiding female images on busses was gender discrimination despite the company’s avoidance of all human images in ads to evade such a claim. The Transportation Ministry promised to finance damage insurance in the event that busses with advertisements suffer any damage.


Bnei Brak is dumping Zionist street names to rename the streets after rabbonim and frum politicians and askonim. Herzl Street has ceased to exist in the town. It was renamed Rav Shach Street after the gadol hador’s passing. Now, the city council decided to make many more such changes. Second Aliyah Street will become Admor of Lublin Street, Kibbutz Galuyot Street will turn into Rav Shlomo Berman Street, and Mother of Moshavot Street will cease to exist. In its place, a sign will read Rav Avrohom Shapira Street.


Religious Zionists in Bnei Brak raged at the proposal.


“To change the name of Religious Zionist leaders who built the land and were partners in its construction…means to literally kick out the remaining Religious [Zionists] left here,” said one municipal worker. “They are banishing every trace of Zionism from the town.”


Mayor Avrohom Rubinstein assured objectors that they can complain before old street signs are ripped down and said that the city would inform relatives of people whose names will be removed.


The town council says that changing street names in Israel is nothing new.


“We didn’t invent the idea of erasing street names,” it said in a statement. “Since the state began, this has been done in towns like Yerushalayim, Yaffo, and Haifa. As Zionists, people should remember this. Until today, Zionism persecutes every Arab who tries to give an Arab name to even one street.”


In Ramallah, police arrested people who hung street signs named after Arabs in protest of the city’s refusal to give Arab names to a few streets in the town’s Arab neighborhoods. In Tel Aviv, feminists are demanding to change male street names to women’s names.



Facing the Test

  Parshas Behar opens with the mitzvah of Shmittah. The discussion of the topic begins by stating that Hashem told these halachos to Moshe Rabbeinu

Read More »

My Take on the News

    Five Soldiers Die in Friendly Fire Mishap Tensions are running high in Israel, and even if life seems to be moving along normally

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated