Torah study as national service – a proposal for a new track

The time has come for Israel to take an honest look at reality and to rethink ways of finding creative solutions that can realistically resolve this historically painful issue.

January 1, 2019 21:25
3 minute read.
TIME FOR a ‘Torah study track’ as national service.

TIME FOR a ‘Torah study track’ as national service. . (photo credit: REUTERS)


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As Israel heads to general elections this April, the responsibility for enacting a mandatory draft law has effectively been pushed off to the next government.

The outgoing coalition managed to propose a version of the law that at least initially received the support of Avigdor Liberman and Yair Lapid, chairmen of the secular Yisrael Beytenu and Yesh Atid parties respectively. However, the ultra-Orthodox coalition partners refused to support the proposal, and the Israeli High Court of Justice with its power of judicial review, has restricted the ability of the Knesset to successfully enact legislation on the issue. In light of the continued stalemate between politicians of different factions – as well as between the Knesset and the High Court of Justice – it remains to be seen whether there can or will be any progress in finding a long-term solution. 

What is clear to at least the majority of Israeli society is that a full and comprehensive mandatory draft of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students is not a feasible option. Neither Israeli society nor the army seek such an approach.

There is a concern among ultra-Orthodox leaders that such a law would impose financial penalties on yeshivas that fail to meet recruitment quotas by a final expiration date extended by the High Court of Justice. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox representatives who object to a mandatory draft actually prefer for such a law to pass, albeit without openly supporting it in order to prevent any scenario in which extremists in their circles would accuse them of enabling secularization and the destruction of the Torah world. The ultra-Orthodox leadership however, knows very well that even if the draft law were to pass, the Torah world would still remain with the same number of yeshivas that enjoy unprecedented financial support from the secular government.

The time has come for Israel to take an honest look at reality and to rethink ways of finding creative solutions that can realistically resolve this historically painful issue, which has long been a political football used by some to attack others and to split society.

One plausible option is to offer a “Torah Study Track” for National Service. Such a track would be demanding and have a set of criteria within a rigid and regulated framework to be fulfilled by participants for the duration of their service.

The “Torah Study Track” may very well be even more demanding than the volunteer program in the civil service, which is a creative option for Arab citizens and religious girls that is widely accepted by secular Israelis.

The government can provide for those who choose to postpone military service in order to study Torah under the supervision of the state in the “Torah Study Track.”

However, all participants should be expected to meet the track’s requirements, such that participants who decide to drop out halfway through would be required to complete their service in a civilian or security track and from there to continue to academic studies or employment.

Beyond the tremendous change that this approach may bring to the ultra-Orthodox sector, I would like to see young people from other sectors (religious and secular) also choosing this track.

The strength of the State of Israel is not only based on the foundations of security but also on Jewish values. Jewish studies should be important to every sector of the nation, and the state should encourage the existence of an outstanding cadre focused on all Jewish subjects.

With creative thinking, the problem of unequal burdens in National Service can be transformed into an asset for taking joint responsibility for the security of the state, both militarily and religiously.

I call on politicians, ultra-Orthodox and secular, to think of new approaches and for the next Knesset to adopt solutions that are outside of the box. Take the divisive politics of conscription and turn them into an historic opportunity for national healing.

The writer is chairman of Gesher.

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