An announcement by Defense Minister Ehud Barak that he will refuse the requests of about 1,000 haredi Torah students to defer their army service has put Shas in an untenable position, a senior source in the Sephardi haredi political party said Thursday.
"Barak is staging a provocation," said the Shas source, who added that his party will not be able to remain in the government if young men are denied the right to study Torah. "He is endangering the future of the coalition."
If Shas does not use all its political clout within the coalition to torpedo Barak's initiative, the Sephardi haredi party will be subjected to massive pressure from leading Ashkenazi haredi spiritual leaders to leave the government.
Haredim consider military deferments for yeshiva students a sacred right. Torah study is seen in haredi circles as the real provider of physical protection to the Jewish state against its enemies, more than fighter jets and infantrymen.
Further, Torah education is the single most important haredi interest; if endangered, it could mobilize the entire haredi population to action.
"Even though the majority of Shas's voters did army service, we nevertheless are obligated to support the right of every Jew to study Torah, because that is what ensures Jewish continuity," said the Shas source.
Shas chairman Eli Yishai called Barak's initiative illegal, saying, "I understand that Barak wants a coalition crisis, but why is he creating one by breaking the law?"
Israeli law permits men who choose to devote their time to Torah studies to indefinitely delay army service. Currently, some 90,000 yeshiva students between the ages of 18 and the late 20s enjoy such deferments. These students are obligated to study full-time and are prohibited from working.
But, according to the Tal Law, the defense minister must personally authorize requests by yeshiva students for army service deferments; under certain circumstances, the defense minister can deny such requests. The precise limitations on the defense minister's powers are presently being investigated by legal advisors in the Defense Ministry.
The students whose requests Barak said he would deny belong to 61 newly created Torah institutions, most of which are smaller kollelim for married men, according to Rabbi Asher Tannenbaum, chairman of the Council of Yeshivot, the haredi body that presents an annual list of Torah students requesting deferrals.
Tannenbaum said the heads of the major yeshivot would meet soon to discuss how to react to Barak's announcement.
Sources in the Defense Ministry said Barak's move was part of a larger campaign against draft dodging. In recent years, a combination of falling military induction rates and demographic factors has pushed the IDF and the Defense Ministry to crack down on draft dodgers of all types.
In particular, however, there has been a steady rise in the number of high school graduates requesting delays to pursue Torah studies.
According to IDF data from August, one in four draft-eligible 18-year-old males is not inducted. Of that number, nearly half - a total of 11% - postpone military service by declaring that Torah study is their livelihood.
In part this is due to brisk natural growth in the haredi population. OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern recently noted that one in four first graders is haredi, which means that in little over a decade haredim alone will make up a quarter of high school graduates.
Numerous attempts have been made to encourage haredim to join the Nahal Haredi unit, an insular framework within the IDF that accommodates haredi needs, such as strict separation of the sexes, strictly kosher food, time off for Torah study and a more stringent adherence to the prohibitions of Shabbat.
The haredi establishment has resisted attempts to conscript yeshiva students, warning against the spiritual dangers inherent in Israel's army, which often brings together young men and women in intimate co-ed situations. Although Nahal Haredi has grown significantly, it has not been able to draw more than a few hundred haredim per year. Last year, about 350 joined the Nahal Haredi program, out of several thousands of 18-year-old males conscripted into service.
Another factor in the rising number of high school graduates requesting deferments is the process of "haredization" taking place within the religious Zionist movement. According to religious Zionist yeshiva sources, more high school graduates are opting for hesder, a five-year program which combines 18 months of military duty with three-and-a-half years of yeshiva studies. As part of the program, students postpone enlistment.
Also, many more religious Zionist youth are opting to indefinitely delay military service to pursue Torah studies.