Keshev c'tee hears proposals for draft dodger issue

Religious freedom NGO calls for obligatory service for all citizens, with financial sanctions for yeshiva students who refuse to serve.

Keshev Committee 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Keshev Committee 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Keshev Committee, tasked with replacing the “Tal Law,” heard several different proposals on Thursday for solutions to the problem of the low rate of haredi enlistment in national service programs.
Shahar Ilan, the deputy director of the religious freedom lobbying group Hiddush, said that financial sanctions should be leveled at ultra-Orthodox men who refuse to serve by excluding them from receiving stipends and other benefits currently allocated to them.
Renegade Shas MK Haim Amsalem and head of the Am Shalem political movement proposed instead that an intensive, four-year yeshiva study course be established and recognized as a form of national service.
Anyone unable to stand up to the rigors of the program, Amsalem said, would have to complete their national service in the IDF or in civilian service programs in the police or Border Police.
Ilan began his presentation with tough words on the possibility of cooperation from the haredi leadership with the goal of obligatory national service for all.
“Theirs is a rejectionist front,” he said. “Anyone who claims that there is an authoritative [ultra-Orthodox] leader who is prepared to accept quotas [on the number of yeshiva students able to gain national service exemptions] or who encourages students to serve is invited to present him,” he continued.
According to Ilan, the de facto head of the haredi community Rabbi Aharon Shteinman, considered a relative moderate, has led the battle against obligatory service.
Hiddush’s proposals include obligatory service for all citizens, with a three-percent quota for exemptions for outstanding Torah scholars from each yearly intake of men into the national service system. Currently, the percentage of yeshiva students getting exceptions from national service through Torah study is 13% of the national intake.
Ilan also proposed economic sanctions for yeshiva students refusing to perform national service, specifically that they not be given state funding allocated to yeshivas, discounts from national insurance, the income support the state provides to yeshiva students or housing benefits. He also said that they should not able to work in the civil service.
“Yeshivas that teach draft evasion should not receive a penny,” Ilan demanded, adding that he has already testified on four other committees dealing with the issue of haredi enlistment in the army.
“This committee has an historic opportunity,” he said. “If it is wasted, it’s possible that the next committee won’t be able to redress the situation.”
Amsalem’s proposal for a state-recognized Torah-study-as-national- service program is, he said, based on the twin values of the importance of learning Torah along with the equally important notion of sharing the burden of service equally among the state’s citizens.
According to his plan, an effective system would be established to identify enrolled full-time yeshiva students who are not actually studying, in order to draft them into military or civilian service, including service in the police and Border Police forces.
Anyone wishing to apply to the national service Torah track would be able to do so, although Amsalem estimated that at least 25% of applicants would not make the grade for the initial entry requirements and would go directly to military or civilian service, while another 50% would drop out during the duration of the course.
According to Amsalem, the Torah track would be designated specifically to “serious, select” students whose entry to and continued participation in the course would be dependent on fulfilling certain criteria, including “an appropriate background,” dedication to “extended Torah study,” “fear of God,” and a “proper level of religious knowledge.”
Amsalem said that the program would include a committee of rabbis and inspectors who would establish entry requirements. They would also conduct strict checks for both the student and the Torah institutes in which the course is conducted, with heavy fines being imposed on students and institutes that do not fulfill their commitments. Any student not fulfilling the terms of the course would be transferred to military or civilian service to complete his national service requirements.
The various committee members, including chairman Yohanan Plesner (Kadima), coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu), seemed less than impressed with the proposal.
Boaz Nul, one of the leaders of the obligatory national service campaign, was also present at the hearings, and expressed severe skepticism as to the sincerity of the committee’s efforts.
He claimed that the Likud-Kadima coalition was plotting to exchange the Tal Law with legislation that, according to Nul, would fail to bring about the desired change.
The afternoon session of the Keshev hearings was closed to the press, but speaking with The Jerusalem Post, Nul said that he expressed to the committee his concerns that the coalition is plotting to establish minimum quotas for haredi enlistment to national service programs, in accordance with proposals made by Elkin, regardless of the recommendations of the Keshev committee tasked with replacing the Tal Law.
Such quotas, he said, would never be met and would constitute the continuation of the current situation in which the overwhelming majority of ultra- Orthodox men eligible for national service do not serve.
Also present at the hearing were representatives of the Arab community, Said Abu Zalem, director of the Northern District court system, and Ali Zahalka, head of a social and educational NGO in Wadi Ara.
They stated that the Arab sector is interested in sharing in the burden of national service, but argued that the absence of sufficient incentives for those completing national service in the Arab sector is one of the main reasons for the low rate of participation by the Arab community in civilian service programs.