Politics: On a narrow bridge, with no fear

National religious MKs convinced that with faith, political acumen, Hesder yeshivas will survive.

Hesder Yeshinva students 370 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Hesder Yeshinva students 370
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When the Tal Law was canceled last month, hesder yeshivas – the religious- Zionist institutions that combine Torah study and IDF service – were an accidental victim, set to become illegal on August 1, unless they are anchored in new legislation.
The hesder program is generally seen as a success, even winning the Israel Prize for its contribution to society, so Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu) and MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) thought their bills on the matter would pass quickly and easily.
However, there have been bumps in the road, leading some – like Orlev – to be concerned, while others – like Rotem – are sure that with a little faith and political acumen, the hesder track will survive.
The 2002 Tal Law, which was meant to encourage haredi yeshiva students to enlist in the IDF and included clauses allowing for hesder yeshivas, was declared unconstitutional by the High Court last month. The hesder program was regulated by the Ministry of Defense, until “Article Nine” was added to the final draft of the Tal Law nearly 10 years ago, officially legislating their status.
Now that the Tal Law seems to be out of commission, the religious- Zionist institutions are ostensibly in their last months after an illustrious 59-year history.
Hesder yeshiva rabbis – some of the most influential leaders in the religious- Zionist community – failed to express outrage or start a campaign to save their institutions. Then, when the Ministerial Committee for Legislation took bills meant to legally anchor Zionist yeshivas off its agenda for two months last Sunday, the rabbis remained silent.
Yet, there is no real danger the program will disappear, according to Association of Hesder Yeshivot Director Eitan Ozeri, which currently represents over 8,500 student-soldiers from 68 yeshivas.
“This is a completely political issue, which will be solved politically,” Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, dean of Yeshivat Hesder Petah Tikva explained. “No one opposes the hesder framework – not the haredim and not the secular community.”
However, MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi), who proposed one of the two bills waiting for the Ministerial Committee’s attention, warned against complacency and promised to take action.
“The heads of yeshivas look behind them and see that I have their backs, but my back is against the wall,” he lamented. “Religious-Zionists should be very worried.”
After all, Orlev and Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman David Rotem (Israel Beiteinu), who proposed the first bill on the issue, were certain their respective proposals would get the green light from ministers. Rotem’s spokesman even prepared a press release saying the measure had been approved, which he is saving optimistically for May.
Yet, the ministers completely removed the item from Sunday’s agenda, and all fingers are being pointed at a political tactic by United Torah Judaism – specifically Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni – in regards to the decision.
According to the Tal Law, both haredi (ultra-orthodox) and hesder yeshivas fell under “Torato Omanuto” (Torah is his profession), the arrangement in which the defense minister can allow a full-time Torah student to defer army service.
Gafni told The Jerusalem Post hesder yeshivas must, and should, remain in the same legislative category as haredi yeshivas because they are both institutions for Torah study. Anyway, he added with a grin, the Tal Law was canceled because of inequality, and hesder students are part of that inequality because they spend less than half of the time their secular peers spend serving in the IDF.
“That is, it’s unequal if you do not think Torah studies protect Israel,” Gafni quipped.
The way Cherlow sees it, haredi parties prefer to be in the same law as hesder yeshivas so they do not look like the “bad guys.” If Torato Omanuto applies to hesder yeshivot, which are viewed in a positive light, the public anger at the rate of haredi enlistment will be moderated.
This haredi view is exactly what Orlev, whose party has historically represented the national-religious community, fears. By allowing yeshivas that encourage students to serve in the IDF to fall under Torato Omanuto, like haredi yeshivas, Zionist yeshivas allowed the government to pull the rug out from under them, he explained.
“We cannot be part of a law that legitimizes not serving in the army,” Orlev asserted this week, adding that his bill adds a time limit to Torato Omanuto that would fit the hesder arrangement, or Zionist “higher yeshivas,” in which students defer enlistment for several years, but not haredi yeshivas, where students delay service indefinitely.
For the Habayit Hayehudi MK, the worst-case scenario is the following: The hesder law does not pass because Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wants to appease haredi coalition members.
Meanwhile, the coalition cannot come to an agreement on a Tal Law alternative by August 1.
At that point, Orlev says, religious 18 year olds will get enlistment notices. The haredi rabbis will tell their students to stay in yeshiva, and not to worry – there is not enough room in prison for all of them. The vast majority of Zionist yeshiva students, however, will go to the army, because their ideology tells them to obey the laws of the Jewish state.
As for the claim that if the government does not come up with an alternative to the Tal Law in time, they will temporarily continue the legislation’s validity – Orlev pointed out that even an extension needs a majority in the Knesset.
Israel Beiteinu will have to vote against it after party leader Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman publicly stated more than once that he opposes extending the Tal Law, and most of the opposition feels the same way, making an extension an unrealistic option.
In short, the only way to keep hesder yeshivas alive in the current political climate is to legally separate them from haredi yeshivas, and pass a law as soon as possible.
If need be, Orlev would try to get opposition MKs on his side to pass a law protecting the yeshivas, but it could cause coalition problems.
“If the prime minister prefers haredi parties in this issue, I’m out of the coalition,” he stated. “The only way Netanyahu could keep everyone together is allowing [coalition MKs] to vote freely on the bill.”
Rotem, however, is much more optimistic about his bill’s prospects and the coalition’s future, perhaps because his faction is five times larger than Orlev’s and carries far more political weight. The Israel Beiteinu MK pointed out that High Court Justice Hanan Meltzer said in his verdict on the Tal Law that hesder yeshivas should not be banned.
“The matter is in my hands – and my hands are excellent,” Rotem quipped, confident his bill would pass.
After all, he explained, hesder yeshiva students exemplify Israel Beiteinu’s ideology: they serve in the army, are Zionists, and generally go on to work and pay taxes. The hesder bill will definitely pass because the program has proved its effectiveness, he said.
Perhaps his outlook on the legal status of hesder yeshivas can be summed up by a famous quote by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: “All the world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to fear at all.”
Despite the narrow, precarious legislative bridge on which the national-religious yeshivas are standing, Rotem remains fearless.
“So the haredi parties will try to cause trouble. So what? I can handle it,” he said.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.