Army Exemptions for Yeshiva Students Come Under Scrutiny

Public attention was focused this week on the sizable number of yeshiva students exempted from military service. Premier Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres agree it is unfair and does not serve the national interest.

Shamir said over the weekend that “the wholesale exemption of yeshiva students from service is splitting the nation in two.” Peres proposed that exemptions should be reduced to the number necessary to maintain the religious schools, not make them a haven for draft dodgers.

He told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee Monday that “the criteria for exemptions have apparently changed since 1977, and we ought to examine the reasons why.”

Israeli law requires that all able-bodied citizens serve in the armed forces when they reach the age of 18. Men are required to serve for 3 years and women for 2 years. But yeshiva students are excused as long as they pursue their religious studies.

A Knesset subcommittee study of Israel Defense Force documents showed that exemptions for yeshiva students increased after Likud came to power in the 1977 Knesset election. Ezer Weizman, then a Likud defense minister, raised the number of exemptions because the first Likud government depended upon the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Israel party for its Knesset majority.

FROM 150 TO 17,000

Peres recalled that in 1948, when he was director general of the Defense Ministry, David Ben-Gurion, who was premier and defense minister, put him in charge of military exemptions. The number of requests then was for 150 to 200 yeshiva students out of a total Jewish population of 650,000.

“If today, the number of students exempted is 17,000, it’s a very serious matter,” Peres said.

Rabbi Menachem HaCohen of Labor, who chairs the Knesset subcommittee investigating the issue, said the IDF’s figures “prove that 20,000 yeshiva students of military age are today exempt from regular and reserve service.”

Another subcommittee member, Yossi Sarid of the left-wing Citizens’ Rights Movement, said that the exemptions law has enabled “60,000 healthy yeshiva students to become battlefield deserters” since the state was founded.

Recently the rabbinical court in Jerusalem refused to appoint Ezra Basri, a candidate for dayan–religious court judge–because he had feigned mental illness to evade military duty in 1957. It was also disclosed that many of the recently appointed military chaplains never did their compulsory military service.

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