Knesset Finance Committee Chairman MK Yaakov Litzman is currently delaying a number of important budget transfers - until the Finance Ministry pays him a "transfer toll; namely, another NIS 150 million for yeshiva students. Although the financial matter is eye-catching, the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members' great achievement doesn't lie there, but in a far more important field - life itself.
In the 1950s, when the exemption from service in the Israel Defense Forces for Yeshiva students was first established, it applied to 400 people. In 1977, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox, Menachem Begin made a historic error and scrapped the limit. From that moment on, the festivities began. The number of yeshivas and the number of yeshiva students began to soar. In 1994, only 5 percent of conscripts received an exemption on religious grounds. In 2001, that rate rose to 8 percent; and this year, it is 11 percent, and still rising.
The reason is very simple - shirking. The young men use the yeshivas as shelters to save their skins. This is cowardly shirking that contradicts Judaism. Maimonides writes that in an obligatory war, everyone goes to war, even a groom from his banquet and a bride from under her canopy. But who is Maimonides compared to the ultra-Orthodox wheelers and dealers. The ultra-Orthodox mother wants to live in peace. She isn't interested in waking up in the middle of the night to a knock on the door.
And when the discrimination cried out to the heavens, the High Court of Justice took up the matter. The court ruled, five years ago, that exemption from military service for the ultra-Orthodox is unacceptable discrimination.
The state can solve the problem simply. Return to the pre-1977 arrangement and draft most ultra-Orthodox into active service. But since the cabinet is afraid of conflict with the rabbis, and occasionally needs the ultra-Orthodox vote in the Knesset, it invented a distorted and unacceptable solution - the Tal Law, which was ratified by Knesset two and half years ago.
The law allows young ultra-Orthodox men to enjoy all worlds: Should they choose to do so, they can continue studying at yeshiva and not be drafted. And if it is their wont, they can leave the yeshiva, serve short, symbolic military service, and start living a life of labor.
Life of labor? That's a joke. They are used to living without holding a job - at the expense of subsidies, scholarships, Judaic studies stipends, yeshiva stipends, and all sorts of other grants and dispensations. Should they dare to leave the yeshiva, they would have to work for a living - and that is hard. Who would want to leave such a protected incubator?
And the figures reveal the depth of the failure of the Tal Law: Just 74 yeshiva students have been drafted under the plan.
This week, the cabinet broke its own record. It decided that instead of short military service, the ultra-Orthodox will be able to do short civilian service. In other words, the young ultra-Orthodox man (if he so chooses, of course) will sign up for one year's civilian service, receive a salary like a soldier, and get all the benefits of a discharged serviceman, without risking his life, without doing reserve duty, while the secular and the religious continue to sacrifice their lives for him.
The civilian service will of course be nothing more than sleight of hand. Who would be able to penetrate the closed ultra-Orthodox society and check who really serves? But one thing is sure to be established - a "State Authority for Civilian Service," to be headed by ultra-Orthodox bureaucrats. It will have divisions, departments, managers and staffers and burn through huge budgets - more flab on the public sector.
One can only hope that the High Court will also understand this time around that this is callous, outrageous discrimination, and will cancel the arrangement. Maybe it should even recommend the one-and-only solution - full conscription of the ultra-Orthodox into the ranks of the IDF. Such a draft would also have political advantages: If fear of death in battle entered ultra-Orthodox homes too, political thinking would become clearer. It would suddenly become clear that war cries are dangerous. It would suddenly be revealed that a peaceful solution is a logical option.
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