The Yeshivot Council, the body that brought about the suspension of the deliberations of the Katz Commission (the Knesset committee that is preparing the Tal Law on the drafting of yeshiva students), is not the ultra-Orthodox version of the Council for Higher Education or even the union of yeshivas. The council, in fact, is nothing but the body that grants permits for the deferral of military service, a sort of non-induction center. The council also occasionally publishes odd regulations, such as one prohibiting yeshiva students from learning how to drive.
The secretary of the Yeshivot Council, Asher Tenenbaum, decided to boycott the meetings of the Katz Commission after receiving a directive from rabbis in the second rung of Degel Hatorah. The chairman of the Katz Commission, MK Yossi Katz (Labor), announced that he would not renew the deliberations until a representative of the committee attended, on the grounds that there was no chance of passing the Tal Law if the body that dealt with issuing military deferrals does not recognize the Knesset.
Few people are aware of it, but since the mid-'90s, the Yeshivot Council has been state-funded. In 2001, for example, the council received NIS 665,000. The Ministry of Religious Affairs transferred no less than NIS 2.5 million to the Yeshivot Council to pay for, among other things, past debts and severance pay. The minimum that the Knesset can do to preserve its dignity is to see to it that the allocations to the committee are stopped.
It is not at all clear what a body whose main purpose is signing draft evasion permits (about 150 per day, on average) is doing with so much money, apart from paying superfluous salaries, of course. It is also not clear why this work cannot be done by two Religious Affairs Ministry clerks with an annual salary of about NIS 150,000.
Even less clear, however, is why the state needs to pay for the process of receiving army deferrals. This is a classic case where the individuals requesting deferrals should be charged a healthy fee that would cover all the costs of dealing with their requests, including an effective system of controls that would certify that those receiving deferrals are indeed genuine yeshiva students.
The situation in which the Israeli taxpayer does military reserve duty instead of potential ultra-Orthodox draftees and is also forced to fund their evasion of service expresses a cynicism that is extraordinary even in the absurd reality that the ultra-Orthodox have imposed on the country. It's like robbers who ask their victim to gift-wrap the items they have just stolen from him.
The boycott of the Katz Commission isn't the first time that Tenenbaum has demonstrated public cowardice. Tenenbaum was a member of the Tal Commission, which formulated the revolutionary proposal of allowing yeshiva students to leave for a year at age 23 to study or work without being drafted. But shortly before the signing of the commission's report, Tenenbaum received instructions from certain ultra-Orthodox rabbis and refrained from signing it. The other two Haredi members of the commission did sign. It's no secret that in ultra-Orthodox public life, the question of which directive you receive depends greatly on which rabbis you consult and how you present your questions.
One of the reasons for the generous state funding of the Yeshivot Council is its ostensible purpose of supervising and making sure that the students applying for draft deferrals are legitimate yeshiva students. In the 1997 State Comptroller's Report, staff from the Comptroller's Office related that Tenenbaum told them that "the council has a moral responsibility to ensure that the yeshiva students abide by the terms of the arrangement [governing the army service of yeshiva students]."
With sharp irony, the staff point out in the report that "this obligation has not yet passed from the stage of intentions and desires to that of actual performance." What is the situation on the ground? According to army estimates, 20 percent of every class of yeshiva students drops out of studies. These men would not be able to evade military service if they did not receive authorization from the Yeshivot Council, accompanied by disregard.
The Katz Commission is now caught in a trap: It promised to get some version of the Tal Law passed by the end of the Knesset's winter session, in other words within a month. The Haredi Knesset members raised the possibility that another representative would attend its meetings in the name of the Yeshivot Council. Tenenbaum is the only person, however, who is currently authorized to speak for the organization. Appointing anyone else would entail convening the committee's executive committee. This committee has not met for some time, partly due to its inability to choose a new president to replace Rabbi Eliezer Schach, who died recently.
The moment is approaching when the High Court of Justice will have no choice but to abrogate the arrangement under which army service is deferred. If the Tal Law is not passed by then, responsibility for the terrible rent in the social fabric will be borne by Tenenbaum and his extremist rabbis, who wasted previous time.
Another question that should be addressed is why, despite the fact that United Torah Judaism (UTJ) should have had a clear interest in passing the Tal Law, it neglected the issue and did not see to its gaining approval. The UTJ Knesset members have proved in recent weeks that when something is truly important to them, such as the yeshiva budget or the Large Families Law, they can impose their will on the government. Is it possible that the Tal Law is not high enough on their list of priorities?
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