Saturday, Jul 20, 2024

A Conscription Law To Suit all Sizes

Since Prime Minister Netanyahu gave the government a new face last week, crafting a new conscription law for yeshiva students has switched from being the top plank of a new election, to being the top priority of a new coalition. The government is caught between a rock and a hard place. Leaving the conscription problem unfixed would be a direct violation of a Supreme Court order that the government must enact a substitute for the Tal Law by the end of July. On the other hand, fixing the problem according to the Supreme Court's demand that the substitute “must be much more radical” is liable to spark anger and resistance in the Torah world that constitutes ten percent of Israel's 7.8 million population.

Last Thursday, Netanyahu announced that he “will formulate a new bill that would guarantee a more equal sharing of the burden of all parts of Israeli society,” vowing at the same time to make reforms “without setting public against public.” This seems a contradiction in terms. There is also a financial angle to consider. To suddenly provide gender-segregated facilities, mehadrin food, and davening time to masses of new conscripts would be so expensive that one economist suggested the only solution might be to exempt Torah Jews from the army altogether and release them to the marketplace. Obviously, this is not something most Israelis agree to.


During the unity government’s first cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu gave the new conscription law top priority, ranking it with financial security and peace.


“We have four key goals,” he said. “Finding an alternative to the Tal Law, changing the system of government, passing the budget and promoting the peace process.”


The fight for conscription has arrived at an unpropitious time. In the new unity government, Torah parties are at a severe disadvantage for the simple reason that their swing votes are less in demand. Even if Shas and UTA walk out of the coalition, Netanyahu will still have 78 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Torah parties have lost their bargaining power. Although Netanyahu encouraged them to stay on, he does not need them as much as he did two weeks ago. This makes the fight against conscription that much more difficult.


The unity government’s first session on Monday was Israeli government at its best. Time and energy were squandered arguing about the new conscription law. Three proposed laws are jostling for supremacy, each one sufficient to destroy the Torah world we have known for the past sixty years. One law put together by MK Yochanan Plesner of Kadima demands that one third of the annual turnover of 18-year-old bochurim should be conscripted into the army and one third into civil service by 1915. The Yisrael Beiteinu party proposes a law that everyone should be liable to conscription except a small kernel of brilliant learners. Those who do not cooperate should be penalized by being denied government welfare or benefits. Defense Minister Ehud Barak proposes that the army should choose whom it wants and leave the rest to do civil service in hospitals or government institutions. Up to ten percent of exceptional learners should be granted exemptions.


During Monday’s proceedings, Netanyahu proposed Plesner to head the committee that will discuss an alternative for the old Tal Law.




In the course of the day, Torah parties announced that they were boycotting the proceedings. Eli Yishai, the chairman of Shas, announced that following a consultation with Rav Ovadiah Yosef, his party will not be sending a representative to the committee. Shas will produce its own recommendations independent of the committee, based on the principle of increasing conscription without coercion.


“Those who study Torah are not subject to negotiations on quotas and on their basic rights to study the Torah,” Yishai said. “Their contribution to the Jewish people and to the State of Israel is well known and clear to any believing Jew.”


United Torah Judaism also refused to join the committee. Party representatives explained that the committee has been established to harm the Torah world and with the goal of compromising the principle in existence since the founding of the State of Israel that anyone can sit and study Torah without hindrance. In addition, Plenser, the proposed head of the committee, has demonstrated antagonism towards the Torah public and its ideals in the past. UTJ will keep an eye on the proceedings and if necessary, participate on an unofficial basis.


In addition, MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ said that Rav Aharon Leib Steinman has instructed party members to quit the coalition if Torah studies are threatened.


“Any attempt to prevent Torah students from their studies would constitute a severe injury to the soul of the Jewish people,” Gafni said. “We wouldn’t stay for one moment in the coalition if they try and do this. We cannot compromise in any way.”


“Anyone whose heart desires to study Torah must be allowed to learn Torah, without quotas and without conditions,” he added. “We will never allow the status of Torah scholars to be eroded.”


The antagonism of the Torah parties to the Netanyahu committee is not surprising keeping in mind that most of the Torah leaders, including Rav Michal Yehuda Lefkowitz zt”l, Rav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro zt”l, and ybl”c Rav Shmuel Auerbach, and Rav Meshulam Dovid Soloveichik strongly opposed the original Tal Committee and its recommendations.


Meanwhile, Netanyahu plans to appoint Advocate Yaakov Weinroth, an alumnus of the Ponovezh and Mir Yeshivos, to represent the Torah parties at the committee. Weinroth was also a member of the committee of the original Tal Law.


Speaking at Tel Aviv University last week, Weinroth said that in his opinion, the army conscription controversy is fueled by an antagonism to the Torah world dating back to the days of the Haskallah.


He said that from the point of view of secular Israelis, the Torah Jew “is keeping back the Jewish people from progress and putting a break on emancipation. He must be eradicated in order to keep the torch shining; if we don’t eradicate him, our light will die. There is a danger that progress will be stunted if we don’t eliminate this sector of the population. They feel Zionism wanted to solve the Jewish problem by creating a new type of Jew and erasing the Jew of exile; yet who is the ultimate Jew of exile if not the Charedi.”


In Weinroth’s opinion, lessening the primal dislike for the Torah Jew would go a long way to easing the tension engendered by unequal representation in the armed forces. Unfortunately, however, there is little likelihood of that happening by the July 31st deadline.






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