Reward and Punishment, Turned Upside Down

Every year the governemtn doles out millions to yeshiva students while grabbing tuition fees from students at secular universities.

The concept of "reward and punishment" expresses a worldview accepted by most people. If you sin, you will be punished. If you do something good, you will be rewarded. And since people have free will and can decide what to do, they also know when they will be rewarded and when they will be punished. But what happens when this principle is breached? What happens when someone who deserves a reward is punished, and when someone who should be penalized receives generous remuneration?

This happens here every day, all the time - now more than ever. Just a few days ago Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz met with the "forum of economic leaders" and presented his doctrine regarding military service for the ultra-Orthodox. They should be completely exempt, he said, so they can enter the labor market. According to Steinitz, the Israel Defense Forces "can continue to operate without the Haredim," referring to the ultra-Orthodox, "but if they don't enter the labor market, Israel's economy will be badly damaged." His audience was not enthusiastic about his message. In fact, they criticized it. Indeed, we have here an irksome distortion of the concept of reward and punishment.

This issue has a long history. It began with David Ben-Gurion, who agreed to exempt 400 yeshiva students from army service to perpetuate the legacy of the yeshiva students who were killed in the Holocaust. That sounded reasonable. But in 1977, then-prime minister Menachem Begin made a serious mistake when he agreed that anyone who was studying at a Haredi yeshiva could get out of the army, with no cap on numbers. As a result, the number of "students" rose precipitously, and today they constitute 12 percent of the number of inductees in a draft cohort. The third mistake was made by Ehud Barak, who as prime minister in 1999, established the Tal Committee, from which emerged the Tal Law, which made it even easier for yeshiva students to evade military service. And now, Yuval Steinitz has made this discrimination totally kosher.

It's hard to believe that a man who sees himself as an unequivocal Zionist can adopt such an anti-Zionist position. Steinitz's exemption delivers a knockout to the secular and religious soldiers who are drafted for three years and then do reserve duty. How must they feel, in light of this immoral discrimination? After all, this is clearly a social time bomb that will deepen society's polarization.

It's also irritating to hear that if they already do go into the army (the few hundred that do so ), they are treated with kid gloves. The irresolute system is to draft them to special units in technology and logistics. They receive special conditions, much higher salaries than ordinary draftees and serve close to home, where there is no danger of ending up in a military cemetery. Once again, outright discrimination.

For them, the trick known as "national service" was invented. It sounds good, but, in fact, it is a big waste. Because the Haredim who volunteer for "national service" work in Haredi organizations, within Haredi society. No one knows what they do there, when and where, and where the money goes. But the funds for "national service" are growing, and it is becoming another source of money the state transfers to the Haredim.

Not long ago, the Bank of israel proposed encouraging the ultra-Orthodox to go out to work by giving a grant to any employer who would hire them. Once again, we have an example of upside-down reward and punishment - the grant gives an advantage to the Haredi person but simultaneously hurts the secular or religious person vying for that same position.

Discrimination continues when it comes to university students. Every year the Finance Ministry doles out hundreds of millions of shekels as "allowances" to students in kollels, yeshivas for married men. But the treasury takes tuition money from university students. That means that learning Gemara by heart is more important than engineering, medicine, economics and literature. And even more absurd is that the "kollel allowances" are higher than the salary of an IDF draftee. A man studying in a kollel gets about NIS 900 a month, while a soldier receives only between NIS 360 and NIS 700 a month. That is really infuriating. You serve, you put your life in danger and you also get paid less than a draft-dodger.

So who says there is reward and punishment in this world? After all, the Book of Job lamented that some righteous men experience adversity and some wicked men prosper.