Defense Ministry to Review ultra-Orthodox Sect’s Draft Deferments

Move comes a day after dozens of followers of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach were arrested in protests over yeshiva student’s arrest for draft-dodging.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters clash with police on February 8, 2017.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced Thursday a review of the draft deferment policy for an extremist ultra-Orthodox sect after at least 66 members were arrested on Tuesday during protests against the recent arrest of a yeshiva student who failed to report to an induction center.

Lieberman said he would take action against the yeshivas involved, which are affiliated with Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, in the wake of the demonstrations and the sect’s decision to end all contact with Israeli military authorities.

In a statement, Lieberman’s office said the deferment arrangements with the Ma’alot Hatorah and Grodno yeshivas would be reexamined. Under the current arrangement, yeshiva students can postpone their draft date each year, until they eventually age out and are granted an exemption.

But since 2013, Auerbach has instructed his students and followers to cease all contact with the army, including reporting to enlistment centers to arrange a deferment.

The army generally avoids arresting these yeshiva students, who are technically deserters, but occasionally one is arrested by the police for an unrelated reason and remanded to the Military Police when his military status is discovered. This is what happened to the yeshiva student whose arrest last week precipitated Tuesday’s protests.

Lieberman said he would not allow such disturbances and the harsh incitement against soldiers to continue. Holding such demonstrations are defiance against enlistment in the IDF and are intended to undermine the authority of the government to draft soldiers, which is unacceptable and will not be ignored and are an attempt to threaten those who do want to enlist, he added.

Grodno in Ashdod and Ma’alot Hatorah in Jerusalem are just two of the many yeshivas identified with Auerbach and his sect, along with yeshivas in Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit, Hadera and Jerusalem. It is not clear why Lieberman singled those two out in his announcement, and no explanation was given, but it is likely it is connected to their importance within the faction. Grodno is considered particularly militant in the demonstrations, while Ma’alot Hatorah is the yeshiva headed by Auerbach himself.

The yeshiva student arrested last week by the police, and handed over to the Military Police, studies in the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Hundreds turned out to protest at intersections in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, the Shilat and Nitzan interchanges and elsewhere. Over 50 of them were arrested in confrontations with the police, and it seems all have already been released. Auerbach’s followers were threatening to renew the protests on Wednesday evening if the yeshiva student was not released from military prison.

Yishayahu Wein, the deputy editor in chief of Hapeles, the newspaper of the Auerbach sect, told Haaretz that Lieberman’s announcement “sounded like a media gimmick. Does it have legal authority? Is there a precedent? If students from a certain university go out and protest, does it justify denying the rights of the university? It is an attempt of stupid intimidation by the defense minister, an attempt to instill fear. It will not deter anyone,” he added.