Gafni: Yeshiva students prefer jail to the draft

United Torah Judaism MK says none of the bills proposed as Tal Law alternatives thus far would solve the problem.

MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) will go to jail rather than get drafted into the army, MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday.
He also claimed that even though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman “loathe” each other, neither of them really wanted to advance a general election; they were doing so, he said, simply to shorten the amount of time Yair Lapid and Shaul Mofaz would have to get ready for it.
The purpose of the committee hearing was to decide whether the proposals of the committee’s Working Group for the Implementation of the Tal Law should be published or not, in light of the High Court of Justice having ruled the law unconstitutional in February.
Despite Gafni’s objections and the law’s upcoming expiration on August 1, the working group decided to continue with its work and, once it is finished, will present its final findings and recommendations.
Speaking on the issue of haredi enlistment in the army, Gafni said that none of the bills proposed thus far would solve the problem.
“Anyone who can see straight knows that it is impossible to harm someone [who defers army service under the framework of] ‘Torato omanuto’ [Torah is his profession],” said Gafni, referring to the 2002 Tal Law, which legally mandated indefinite postponement of army service for full-time yeshiva students.
“At the end of the day, there won’t be any change, and in the worst-case scenario, yeshiva students will just sit in jail,” he argued.
Working group chairman MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) said that a great responsibility lay on his panel’s shoulders, and that in the coming months it would endeavor, “with or without elections, to coalesce a majority to pass a law mandating obligatory service, and to halt attempts aimed at preserving the Tal Law under the pretext of early elections.”
Plesner also vaunted the Kadima party’s proposal for a Tal Law replacement, saying it would lead to real change.
There are currently 54,000 full-time yeshiva students who can indefinitely postpone their military service through the terms of the Tal Law.
The rate of haredi enlistment in the army stands at about 16 percent, as opposed to the national average of approximately 75%. Ultra- Orthodox participation in national or civilian service programs stands at roughly 11%, bringing the percentage of haredim in some form of military or national service up to about 27% of draft-age Israelis.
The haredi community and its leaders argue that the spiritual well-being of the state is as important to its security as practical defense. However, a large protest movement against the low haredi enlistment has gathered steam this year, and has demanded mandatory military or national service for all, including the ultra-Orthodox.
Gafni, the chairman of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, also pointed out that the coalition agreements made when the present government was formed included a section explicitly guaranteeing the preservation of yeshiva students’ status.
“This section was signed by Yisrael Beytenu and Labor, too, before it split up,” he noted.
As to whether or not to publish the working group’s findings and recommendations, Gafni said there was no point, since the main political parties had already proposed new bills on the matter.
Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev, who was also present at the hearing, proposed the establishment of ultra-Orthodox hesder yeshivot to advance haredi integration into the army. The hesder yeshiva system provides a framework for religious soldiers to combine their military service with Torah study over a five-year period. Typically the program consists of three-and-a-half years in yeshiva and a year and a half in IDF training and active duty.
Ze’ev is an advocate of maintaining the Torato omanuto framework, but is also in favor of encouraging increased haredi enlistment.