To Serve or Not to Serve

The proposals to grant the ultra-Orthodox a complete exemption are weak, in terms of equality, but could be very beneficial to the economy.

Happy 23rd birthday. This week the Finance Ministry contributed to the market of suggestions for solving the problem of the draft exemption of yeshiva students. In the Economic Arrangements Law draft, the treasury suggested a full exemption from service for every yeshiva student who has at least two children and who is over the age of 23. Thus the student will be able to leave the yeshiva to work. Attorney General Menachem Mazuz spoiled the treasury's plans after ordering that the proposal be removed from the arrangements law, since any connection between it and the budget is entirely coincidental. For the moment, it looks as though the proposal will be shelved.

W Defeatist media. In the past there have been journalists who made suggestions similar to that of the treasury. In 1990 Israel Prize laureate Nahum Barnea of Yedioth Ahronoth proposed that anyone who has not been drafted by age 20 should not be drafted at all. The suggestion pertained to the entire public, not only the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox). This writer made a more moderate proposal to the Tal Committee in 2000: exemption from the age of 24, thus enabling yeshiva students to join the work force. The proposals for solving the problem of the yeshiva students' exemption from service are on a continuum ranging from maximum equality to economic benefit. The proposals to grant the ultra-Orthodox a complete exemption are weak, in terms of equality, but could be very beneficial to the economy.

W Quota furor. The non-Haredi camp always tried to set a limited quota of yeshiva students who would receive an exemption. In 1975, then-defense minister Shimon Peres decided on a quota of no more than 800 (new) exempted students each year. But already that same year the Defense Ministry approved a postponement of service for 900 yeshiva students. At present about 5,000 18-year-olds join the arrangement each year. In 1988 a subcommittee of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee published a proposal for a quota of 3 percent of the annual number of candidates for military service. Today yeshiva students included in the arrangement constitute 11 percent of the annual number of candidates. The Haredim oppose a quota, claiming that sending a yeshiva boy to the army is like forced conversion from Judaism, and they cannot agree to such a proposal.

W Trained men out. MK Ami Ayalon (Labor) would like yeshiva students at least to train during the annual three-week summer vacation called "bein hazmanim" ("between the times"), so that they will be fit for reserve duty in time of war. The truth is that this proposal is as old as the state. On March 9, 1948, national headquarters ordered the exemption of yeshiva students from military service, but ruled that "the students who are capable will be given training for self-defense." The leaders of the Haredi community refused, and the order was never carried out. The late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz wrote once that yeshiva students who volunteered for service were thrown out of their yeshiva.

W Firefighting mission. In January 2000 a former, deputy fire and rescue commissioner appeared before the Tal Committee, which was examining the arrangement for postponing service. He said that the firefighting services employ 1,300 people, but need 6,000. The conclusion: Students who leave their yeshivas could be directed to firefighting and rescue missions. But implementation of the Tal Law was delayed, and only recently did we hear about the first yeshiva students who will perform civil service as firefighters.

W Clearing rubble. In recent years, since it has become clear that the home front is the real front, there have been many proposals to send the yeshiva students to the Home Front Command to serve as paramedics, and for tasks such as clearing rubble and collecting bodies. A proposal to this effect was made by the head of the army's Human Resources Directorate, Major General Elazar Stern, with attorney Yaakov Weinroth. According to the proposal, yeshiva students would be able to choose from among three tracks: sequential civil service, service of 24 days a year in the Civil Guard, or reserve duty in the Home Front Command. MK Ayalon also suggests sending the students to civil service in the Home Front Command.

W Constructive proposals. The large immigration from Russia in the early 1990s created a serious housing shortage. Then minister of construction and housing Ariel Sharon emotionally called for Haredi yeshiva students to enlist for the historic construction project. The deputy minister of labor and social welfare, Menahem Porush of Agudat Israel, then said in response that if Sharon supported drafting yeshiva students for construction, Agudat Israel was liable to support the establishment of a Palestinian state, a threat that was, of course, effective only against the old Sharon.