The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party (UTJ) proposed on Tuesday a Basic Law aimed at anchoring in law the exemption from IDF military service for students in religious academies (yeshivot).
The first clause of the bill, called Basic Law: Torah Study, says, "Torah study is a supreme value in the heritage of the Jewish people."
The second clause says, "The State of Israel as a Jewish state views the encouragement of Torah study and Torah students with utmost important, and regarding their rights and duties, those who dedicate themselves to studying Torah for an extended period should be viewed as having served a significant service to the State of Israel and the Jewish people."
All of UTJ's seven Knesset members put themselves down as the bill's sponsors.
The bill's purpose is to prevent a future Supreme Court ruling to strike down a new haredi conscription bill on constitutional grounds.
The previous law, which expired at the end of June, was passed in 2014 and was amended in 2015. It set allotments of haredi draftees to the IDF per year and sanctioned yeshivot that did not meet these allotments. In addition, it gave haredi men who reach the age of 26 a final exemption from service.
In September 2017, the Supreme Court deemed the bill unconstitutional, since the exemption it gave was ruled to be too sweeping and thus violated the notion of equality. The court initially gave the Knesset a year to amend the bill, but this was delayed 15 times due to the recurring elections since then.
The haredi parties initially demanded an override clause in order to ensure that it will be able to override a similar Supreme Court ruling in the future. However, due to public criticism of such a move, the current proposal would make an override clause unnecessary, as the Supreme Court would no longer have the constitutional basis to strike down a future law.
The Basic Law: Torah Study appeared in the coalition agreements between the Likud and UTJ, and was supposed to have passed along with the budget, which became law at the end of May. However, the Likud distanced itself on Tuesday from the proposal, which many Israelis view as fundamentally discriminatory.
"Basic Law: Torah Study is not on the table and will not be advanced," the Likud said in a statement.
Israeli government, opposition voice problems with Basic Law: Torah Study
A "senior official" in the haredi Sephardi party Shas, which is also part of the coalition, said that the party was "in shock" that the proposal was put forward without its knowledge or consent, which causes "enormous damage" to the "defense" of yeshiva students. The official noted that just last week the coalition decided to convene a team of legal experts and party representatives in order to come up with a comprehensive government bill proposal.
"Unfortunately, whoever published this in the current timing, in the midst of a civil crisis and a severe schism in the nation, sabotaged the cause and led to severe incitement against yeshiva students."
The opposition voiced sharp criticism.
"The day after canceling the reasonableness standard, the most unhinged coalition in the state's history is beginning to celebrate at our expense," opposition leader MK Yair Lapid wrote on Facebook. The government of destruction, that does not cease shouting about [reservists] 'refusals' [to continue volunteering], proposes the 'draft-dodging and refusal to serve' bill and even dares call it 'Basic Law: Torah Study," Lapid said.
National Unity chairman MK Benny Gantz, a former defense minister and chief of staff, wrote on Twitter that while Torah study has been "central in the lives of Jews over the generations," the bill would "empty" the notion of the Army of the People, and would cause "strategic damage to the future of the State of Israel."
"Instead of a country that has a government, we are becoming a government that has a country," Gantz added.
Israel's cabinet approved on June 25 a decision to pass a new haredi conscription bill by March 31, 2024, and to direct the IDF not to draft eligible haredi men until then – even though the previous law expired on June 30, and the state currently has no legal basis to continue not recruiting eligible haredi men.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel (MQG) appealed to the Supreme Court earlier this month in order to demand that the IDF begin processes to draft the haredi male population. However, the court accepted the state's argument that the law gives the IDF 12 months to draft conscripts whose exemption has run out, and therefore there was nothing unlawful about the decision not to immediately begin drafting eligible haredi men.
A central tenet of the legislation will be to lower the age of permanent exemption from the current age of 26 likely to the age of 22.
The government defined the legislation's purpose as being to regulate the integration of yeshiva students and graduates of haredi educational institutions into military service, national civil service, and into the workforce, with an emphasis on quality employment.
In order to offset the easing of the ability of haredim to avoid IDF service, the bill will also include a "significant" expansion of benefits for mandatory and reserve soldiers, in order to "express gratitude for their service and in order to reduce inequality in service."
The government will aim to publish an initial version of the bill before the beginning of the Knesset's winter session on October 15 and bring an updated version to the cabinet's approval by November 10.
In a statement, UTJ said the bill was drafted as part of coalition agreemenets regarding the draft of haredim into the Israeli military.
"The timing of the bill's drafting is purely coicendntial and the issue will be discussed as part of agreements between the coalition factions."
Gallant rejects haredi bill
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Tuesday rejected the Haredi bill to grant their community a blanket exemption from IDF service.
He said, "serving in the IDF is the highest level civil obligation. Learning Torah is an important foundation to maintain our [Jewish] spark and I have respect for such studies."
'But at the same time, the defense minister stated, "it is important to remember: there is no place for comparing IDf service to learning Torah. Defending the State in the form of IDF service is the supreme obligation."
"We will make sure that whoever gives more, receives more," said Gallant.
Gallant was put in the awkward place of fighting with his coalition partners who are seeking a wide IDF exemption, just as he has been demanding that the rest of the mostly secular public, many of whom oppose the government's judicial overhaul, continue to not only do mandatory service, but also reserve service.
The defense minister was clearly angry with Justice Minister Yariv Levin for refusing any softening of the judicial overhaul on Monday, but ultimately voted in favor of the law in order to keep his role as defense minister.
When Gallant spoke out publicly against the judicial overhaul in March, he was temporarily fired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though later Netanyahu rescinded the firing once Gallant made it clear he would support the prime minister on the issue going forward.