Defense to Launch Oversight of Yeshiva Draft Exemptions

The Defense Ministry currently has no mechanisms for reviewing whether ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who claim draft exemptions in order to study Torah full-time are actually doing so. However, it now plans to launch a pilot program to change that, the ministry said.

The announcement came in response to an inquiry submitted by MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ), who heads a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that oversees implementation of the Tal Law, which governs draft exemptions for yeshiva students.

Yeshiva students are currently at the center of a raging conflict between the Defense Ministry and the Finance Ministry.

In order to be exempted from the draft, they have to be full-time yeshiva students, and therefore cannot work. Many are married and have children, which means their families are often impoverished. If they delay service until their early thirties, they can receive a permanent exemption.

The treasury wants to find a solution that would enable them to enter the work force before that point, even if they do not serve. But the Defense Ministry insists that they serve in the army first.

Currently, there are 60,000 full-time yeshiva students deferring service. Plesner said that through the panel's discussions, he had learned that these 60,000 draft deferrals are renewed automatically each year, and the defense establishment has almost no oversight over what the students are actually doing.

Specifically, he said, it has no idea whether all 60,000 students are indeed studying Torah full-time, or whether some are working under the table.

"The Defense Ministry does not check for itself whether the people who have declared that they spend all their time studying in yeshiva are actually doing so," he wrote to Defense Minister Ehud Barak about two weeks ago. Instead, it relies on annual declarations that the students obtain from the Vaad Hayeshivot (Council of Yeshivas ) and then submit to the ministry as proof that they study in yeshiva full-time.

The Vaad is a voluntary organization unconnected with the ministry, with an annual budget of NIS 600,000, Plesner noted. This means it has neither the authority nor the resources to ensure the students are actually studying, he said.

Due to this lack of oversight, only a very small fraction of these 60,000 students forgo their draft exemption every year, Plesner said. However, he added, this may not reflect the real number of students who have abandoned full-time Torah studies.

Attorney Ruth Bar, an assistant to the defense minister, wrote Plesner back to promise that the Defense Ministry does indeed plan to increase oversight of yeshiva exemptions.

For the first time, Barak has ordered random checks at yeshivas, she said.

Plesner also complained that the Defense Ministry does not make use of the Education Ministry's data on yeshivas. That ministry allocates NIS 1 million to yeshivas every year, basing its allotments on the number of students enrolled at each institution, and conducts periodic checks of the institutions to make sure the reported figures are accurate, Plesner pointed out.

Bar responded that this data is not relevant to the Defense Ministry.

Nevertheless, she added, "I have asked the Israel Defense Forces to discuss the matter immediately with the Education Ministry, with the goal of conducting a pilot project to cross-check samples of the data."

She also promised to report back to Plesner on the progress of both oversight mechanisms within three months.