Ultra-Orthodox youths in line outside the Jerusalem draft office
Ultra-Orthodox teens lining up outside the Jerusalem draft office, 2009. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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The Israel Defense Forces on Monday slammed the cabinet's decision to cancel compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students aged 22 and up, despite the IDF's objections.

Politicians and Reform Movement leaders also blasted the move, saying the move encourages draft dodging and goes against the principle of equality.

The decision was made in the budget debates two and a half weeks ago, but was kept secret and not published as part of the Economic Arrangements Bill.

Political sources said on Monday it was the Finance Ministry, not the ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who pressured the cabinet to make the decision.

"The ministry wants to bring ultra-Orthodox men into the labor force as early as possible," said a political source. "Until now compulsory army service prevented men in their early 20s from working because they needed an exemption" from military service in order not to be drafted, and the way to do so was to be registered as a full-time yeshiva student, meaning they were forbidden from working.

"The IDF objected vehemently to this move, but like many other clauses in the Economic Arrangements Bill, this too passed under the ministers' radar," he said.

Until now, the controversial Tal Law stipulated the army could enlist for abbreviated service men who stopped studying at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva at age 22. If the IDF rejected them, they could perform one year of national service and then be permitted to work.

Defense Ministry regulations exempted from military service only married yeshiva students aged 22 and above with one child, or married 26-year-olds with no children.

The new decision denies the IDF the right to enlist yeshiva students who stop studying. Instead, they would be permitted to join the labor force after performing a year of national service at a hospital or the Maged David Adom ambulance service.

The IDF top brass refrained from criticizing the decision openly, although it directly opposes Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi's policy of equalizing the burden of military service among all parts of society, including Arabs and ultra-Orthodox men.

Ashkenazi has recently voiced his objection to changing the law at all, and is opposed to allowing 22-year-old ultra-Orthodox men who abandon their studies to evade the draft.

IDF officers accused the Finance Ministry of duplicity yesterday. On the one hand it allocates a budget for the army per drafted yeshiva student, creating an incentive to enlist ultra-Orthodox soldiers. On the other hand the ministry is now exempting young men to appease the ultra-Orthodox parties, they said.

The treasury placed integrating the ultra-Orthodox men into the work force before the principle of equality, the officers said.

The officers are furious that the treasury imposed its stance on the army, which until now had priority in choosing those it wanted to recruit, and its position was dominant in implementing the Tal Law.

The national service administration welcomed the reform, expecting it to increase the number of volunteers.

Reactions in the ultra-Orthodox community, which was never keen on the Tal Law, ranged from indifference to objections. Knesset Finance Committee chairman MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism said he would not interfere.

"Privileges should be given only to those who devote their time to studying ... the state can do whatever it wants," he said.

In discussions among themselves however, yeshiva heads said they were concerned the national-service option would tempt students to leave their studies at an age seen as critical to their educational development.

The Reform Movement said replacing military service with a year of national service would give a legal stamp of approval to an entire community's evasion of its duties. Nothing is more destructive to society than the sense you're being discriminated against, a representative said.

MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ), head of a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee team set up to supervise the Tal Law's implementation, yesterday urged the prime minister to suspend the decision, which he said was made hastily and with no proper public debate.