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When the High Court of Justice discussed the Tal Law on Sunday, statistics attracted attention: The number of people of every age receiving deferment of military service (41,500 between the ages of 18 and 41); the number of those who have taken a "decision year" so far (1,100); and the number of those completing the year of decision by enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces (31).

Actually, the most important finding related to the draft deferment arrangement for yeshiva students ("Torah is his vocation"), was not even mentioned. This is the percentage of the entire age group taking advantage of the special arrangement. This statistic increased during the first half of the decade by 0.5 percent a year on average. The percentage of those joining the "Torah is his vocation" arrangement increased from 9.5 percent of the age group in 2000, to 11.5 percent in 2004. The year when the 10 percent barrier was crossed was 2001 (10.3 percent). In 2002, 10.8 percent of the group deferred their service, in 2003, 11 percent, and in 2004, about 11.5 percent. All the data are based on the information provided to the High Court on the subject of the Tal Law last August, with the exception of the data for 2004, which are based on an estimate given to Haaretz by an Israel Defense Forces source.

However, it is important to emphasize, this finding does not include only the ultra-Orthodox, but many national religious men who use the draft deferment arrangement to study in a yeshiva, and afterward attend hesder yeshiva combining army service and yeshiva studies, or enlist for full military service. To arrive at the number of Haredim alone, the IDF source says that we have to subtract 2.5 percent. In other words, in 2004, the Haredi yeshiva students who took advantage of the "Torah is his vocation" arrangement was 9 percent of the annual draft, one out of every 11 potential draftees.

Army is responsible, too

Behind the Tal Law's lack of success and the failure to set up a civilian service, is the Finance Ministry. The Justice Ministry told the High Court justices on Sunday that what is delaying the establishment of civilian service are differences of opinion between the Treasury and the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor. What is meant by a difference of opinion? The treasury simply wants to pay less for every position in the civilian service than it pays for positions in the National Service (Sherut Leumi) arrangement for women.

It turns out that the IDF bears some responsibility. The data submitted by the state to the High Court, shows that of the 457 yeshiva students who completed their decision year, only 48 are waiting for civilian service, in other words, 10 percent. Why? The army has the authority to decide which of those who complete the decision year will do military service, and who will do civilian service. The army, claims the Justice Ministry, has set the criteria in a manner that enables very few yeshiva students to get into the (future) civilian service, and obliges the rest to do military service. If that doesn't change, we can reasonably assume that the number of those taking a decision year will be drastically reduced. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is now trying to convince the army to ease the criteria. The army, by the way, claims that this year there will be a change, and over 50 percent of those completing their year of decision will be eligible for civilian service.

Who can convert

One of the many obstacles the state places before those who want to convert, even those who want to do so in an Orthodox rabbinical court, is the demand that they be in Israel legally. Ostensibly, that is a logical demand. De facto, there are many relatives of Israeli citizens, who are not in the country legally. For example, partners and children of those who immigrated to Israel according to the Law of Return (who have a Jewish parent or grandparent), but who themselves are not eligible. The same is true of foreign workers who are spouses of Israelis. Conversion could solve these serious problems. But the state insists that conversion not become a tool to solve problems of civil status, perhaps because of some primeval fear of a mass wave of conversions. As though the conversion courts would let that happen.

As of last week, this policy has the approval of the High Court, and of not any old High Court, but that of President Aharon Barak himself. Petitioner Irena Guzman of Ukraine arrived in Israel in 1999 in the wake of her husband, and began citizenship proceedings. As a result of a crisis in their relationship and the couple's divorce, the Interior Ministry ordered Guzman to leave the country even though she had given up her Ukrainian citizenship to receive Israeli citizenship. Guzman turned to the special rabbinical conversion courts, but they refused to accept her, claiming that "conversion in the State of Israel is conditional on a legal residence permit." Guzman petitioned the High Court, claiming that the rabbinical courts are only allowed to make decisions based on religious considerations, and that they should have taken into account the fact that she has passed a course in Judaism and decided to become part of the Jewish people.

The state claimed in response that the Interior Ministry "has a policy of not granting residency permits to foreigners so that they can undergo conversion procedures." The position of the conversion courts serves this policy. Justice Barak ruled that "it is reasonable for the rabbinical court to coordinate its policy with the Interior Ministry..." and that it acted properly. Conversion services, added Barak, "are not the type of services that must be provided to everyone... therefore, the petitioner does not necessarily have the right to convert in Israel."

Only by the regulations

Summer is the season of hunting for buildings and plots for educational purposes. The private education networks, particularly the Haredi ones, are on the lookout for municipal buildings. And municipalities frequently try to transfer the buildings without the long and exhausting process required by the regulations for allocating land for public buildings. This procedure requires a discussion in the city council, placing the decision on file so the public could oppose it and giving other groups the opportunity to compete for the asset, and it is likely to block the transfer preferred by the municipality.

Until now, the local authorities also claimed that the party-affiliated Haredi school networks - the Hinuch Ha'atzmai belonging to Agudat Israel, and Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani belonging to Shas, are exempt from the regulations regarding the allocation of buildings. This is because of a paragraph in the Foundation of Budget Law to the effect that although they are private networks, they will be budgeted on a basis equivalent to that of public education. In spite of the ostensibly egalitarian wording of this paragraph, the High Court has decided in the past that this, in effect, discriminates in favor of the two party-affiliated school systems, as opposed to other private schools. This week, the Tel Aviv Administrative Court decided that the allocation of buildings to the two networks must be conducted according to regulations, like any other allocation.

At issue is a case in which the Petah Tikva Municipality gave the Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani network a building for a yeshiva, with a dormitory for high school students. The neighbors petitioned the Administrative Court against the allocation of the building, claiming that operating an educational institution on the site causes a major nuisance, and that the allocation contravened the law, and was not done in accordance with the regulations for allocating buildings. The municipality and the school network claimed that according to the Foundation of Budget Law, the network has a status equal to that of the public education system, and therefore it should be exempt from the regulations for allocating buildings.

The attorney general, asked to express his position, claimed that discrimination in favor of the Haredi education systems was valid only on issues involving the state budget, and that it should not be extended to the local authorities. He also claimed that this discrimination is valid when it comes to money, and not to the allocation of land. Tel Aviv District Court Judge Uzi Fogelman accepted the attorney general's interpretation in its entirety, and ruled that "it is clear that according to the language of the text, the Foundations of Budget Law relates only to government support for public institutions, in the context of the annual budget. In any case, it appears that there is no place for applying the exception the law makes, when it comes to the allocation of land by a local authority."

The judge also ruled that it is impossible to discover how the Petah Tikva Municipality made the decision to allocate the building. "There is a serious defect in the allocation... there is no documentation regarding the decision."

A small step for the Reform

Last week, the Ministry of Construction and Housing published regulations for allocating funds to build synagogues in old neighborhoods. These regulations constitute a small achievement in the Sisyphean struggle for recognition on the part of the Reform and Conservative communities. Paragraph 7 of the regulations states that "the allocation of synagogues will be done in a manner that will provide a solution for a place of worship in the community for all the denominations, such as Orthodox, Reform, et al." To ensure that the Housing Ministry does not turn this paragraph into a dead letter, with the claim that the progressive congregations are too small, an exceptions committee has been appointed for precisely this purpose.