MK demands info on Civilian Service volunteer placements

MK demands info on Civil

Top officials in the Civilian Service program are unable to provide information on the activities of dozens of participating former yeshiva students, Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner complained this week, casting doubt on the destination of millions of shekels of taxpayers' funds. Plesner's revelation came during a heated meeting Tuesday of the subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee tasked with examining the success of the Tal Law. Holding a list of how many young men were volunteering in specific organizations taking part in the Civilian Service program, Plesner challenged officials, including Civilian Service director-general Ya'acov Amar, to provide him with information about what these youths were doing. "We as MKs know, when we see Excel spreadsheets such as these, when key information is not being included," charged Plesner. The Tal Law was passed by the Knesset in July 2002, in an effort to normalize the enlistment - or lack thereof - of haredi yeshiva students in the IDF. The bill anchored in law the draft exemption for yeshiva students until they reach the age of 22, at which point they have a year in which to choose whether to continue their studies or seek employment and enlist in a short IDF service program. Civilian Service - as a body separate from National Service - was presented as a third alternative. The organizations on Plesner's list ranged from well-known groups such as Chabad and Yad Sarah to smaller groups including one called the Moving House of God. Former yeshiva students who volunteer with such organizations are legally entitled to benefits similar to those of people who have completed mandatory IDF service. Participants in the Civilian Service program receive small salaries as well as subsidized living and travel expenses from state coffers. MK Nissim Ze'ev (Shas) rose to the defense of the organizations. "I am familiar with the activities of many of these organizations," he argued. "The fact that they include the name of God in the name of the charitable organization doesn't mean that they are not doing good work." Amar reported that participation in the program had exceeded projections, with 1,070 participants in 2009. The Civilian Service Authority expects an increase of approximately 500 participants each year, with an estimated 2,500 participants in 2012. Last month, during a marathon meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, retired Supreme Court justice Tzvi Tal said that the law that bears his name had failed to encourage haredi enlistment in the IDF. Tal said that ultimately, he was disappointed by the low levels of participation in the "decision year" program, as well as by the fact that the Civilian Service option had not realized its goals because it did not involve participants in "state services" such as firefighting or Magen David Adom. That complaint was echoed again Tuesday by Plesner, who asked service coordinators why volunteers were not placed more often in organizations that work for the benefit of all Israeli society. Tuesday's meeting was the first of a series of planned follow-up meetings addressing specific aspects of the Tal Law. Future meetings will focus on subjects including the IDF's personnel needs and sociological trends in haredi society.