Treasury: Let Yeshiva Students Work, Not Serve in IDF

The Finance Ministry is proposing that every married yeshiva student who is at least 23 years old and has a minimum of two children be exempt from military service, a change in the current arrangement that allows the postponement of military service until such men celebrate their 41st birthday. This proposal would signal the demise of the Tal Law on the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men, and will be brought before the cabinet on Sunday as part of the Economic Arrangements Bill for 2008.

Furthermore, the Finance Ministry is proposing lifting restrictions on married yeshiva students, allowing them to study only part-time, work and still be exempt from military service.

The treasury says its proposal is meant to boost the number of ultra-Orthodox men in the workforce. Currently, only 30.6 percent of ultra-Orthodox men work, compared with nearly 70 percent of non-Haredi Jewish men.

Originally, exemption from military conscription was granted to yeshiva students on the basis of the concept that recognized their religious studies as their profession. The Tal Law was passed in 2002 as a solution to the ire that the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military conscription provoked among secular Israelis, offering what was essentially partial conscription.

Two weeks ago the Knesset extended the Tal Law for another five years. According to the law, both married and single yeshiva students are allowed to postpone their military service annually until their 22nd birthday. At that point they enter a "deciding" year - a year of adjustment outside yeshiva life - following which they must do a shortened military stint or national service.

Now, the Finance Ministry would like to exempt married yeshiva students with at least two children from any sort of service as early as their 23rd birthday.

This means that very few yeshiva students will have any interest in waiting for a "deciding" year and most will opt to have a second child and be fully exempt from service. Furthermore, the Finance Ministry is proposing that the "deciding" year be offered only to those who are gainfully employed or busy acquiring professional qualifications.

The proposal would grant married yeshiva students a status similar to that of new immigrants, who are exempt from military service if they are married and have one child.

The Finance Ministry's proposal will also allow married yeshiva men to continue their studies only part-time, work full-time and still be exempt from military conscription.

In the past, working while studying at a yeshiva was considered to be a violation of the agreement between the ultra-Orthodox and the state, which authorized the postponment of military conscription for Haredim because of the centrality of studies to their lives.

Five years ago, as part of the Economic Arrangements Law, the Finance Ministry passed an amendment allowing married yeshiva students, 23 or older, to work while studying. However, this arrangement only permitted them to work very few hours.

Now the Finance Ministry is proposing allowing a reduction in the number of hours that married yeshiva students, 23 or older, must study - from the current 45 hours a week down to 30 - without undermining their exemption from military conscription. The only condition is that in lieu of fewer hours of study at the yeshiva, the ultra-Orthodox men must work or acquire professional qualifications.

Regarding the option of national service, the Finance Ministry is proposing that yeshiva students who have one child, would only have to do six months of service. Since the passing of the Tal Law, the Finance Ministry has opposed the national service option and prevented its implementation by not approving funding. Now, the ministry is seeking to minimize the outlay of funds by making national service essentially a symbolic option. In practice, if the Finance Ministry's proposal is passed, thus granting full exemption from conscription to all yeshiva students 23 or older, then requests for doing national service will decline to near zero.