On February 12, 1948, at the height of the War of Independence, the government-in-the-making granted the first exemption from military service to ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. In spite of the war, wrote the heads of the Center for Service to the Nation to Orthodox leaders, they would agree to postpone military service "for yeshiva students whose Torah study is their profession." They said they would do this despite the "need to enlist all the forces ... to preserve the lives and property of the Jews of Palestine."
But the center, which was in charge of conscription for the pre-state Jewish community, said other yeshiva students would be conscripted "like every citizen."
This letter, saved in the State Archives in Jerusalem, was recently published in light of the renewed public interest in the issue.
Months later, Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog protested the center's plan to impose sanctions upon Haredim who did not serve in the military. "You have no right to use the means of such drastic coercion against the surviving remnants of the Holocaust who are observing our holy Torah in Jerusalem," Herzog said.
In May 1950, MK Dr. Joseph Burg, a member of the religious-Zionist camp, wrote to Rabbi Herzog that while he understands "those who want to preserve the surviving remnant of our scribes," there were those who were deliberately cheating the system, "who cover themselves with the cloak of yeshiva students."
Berg asked yeshivas not to give exemption papers to boys who entered the yeshiva just before reaching draft age, in order to "protect the exemption of the genuine yeshiva students and to confront the criticism of the slanderers who are annoyed by anything religious."
But the scope of Haredi exemptions increased, and soon included thousands of young men. In 1958, Herzog responded to reports that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion planned to reduce draft postponements for yeshiva students. Herzog wrote to Ben-Gurion, "[Yeshiva students] are guaranteeing the security of the Jews' Torah and heritage, which are our glory and thanks to which we have come this far," he argued.
Ben-Gurion said he could not accept Herzog's statement that the yeshiva students deserved credit for the country's accomplishments. "It was not they who built the country, not they who risked their lives to die for its independence (although several of them did so ), and they do not have special rights that are not available to other Jews."
Ben-Gurion noted that when he originally agreed to exempt yeshiva students from military service, they were few in number, but that the situation has changed. "I don't know if there is any basis to the accusation that there are some who attend the yeshiva for the purpose of draft evasion. But there is no question that over time the yeshiva students have multiplied ... This is first of all a major ethical question: whether it is right for the son of one mother to be killed in defense of the homeland, while the son of another mother sits in his room and studies in safety."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now