Draft reprieve for Orthodox struck down by Israeli court

JERUSALEM, Dec. 9 (JTA) — An Israeli court decision striking down the current system of granting army deferrals to yeshiva students could exacerbate the religious-secular divide here and put further strain on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s already-tottering coalition. Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled Wednesday that a Defense Ministry deferral program which currently has approximately 30,000 yeshiva students in it is illegal, and it gave the Knesset a year to pass a new law on the matter. Ruling on petitions by two legislators from the secularist Meretz Party and the Israeli University Students Association, which sought to put a ceiling on the number of deferrals granted, the 11-justice panel said that if the Knesset failed to pass legislation in the next 12 months, the arrangement would be null and void. The justices said the issue had created a growing sense of inequality in Israeli society. The deferrals, which date from the status-quo agreement that helped to usher in the founding of the State of Israel, has become a lightning rod in recent years. In a bid to head off the petitions, Netanyahu established a panel in May headed by a retired Supreme Court judge that would examine the issue and try to come up with a solution acceptable to all parties. But the prime minister abandoned the idea after members of the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, Agudat Yisrael Party threatened to bring down the government if the panel were formed. Commenting on Wednesday’s ruling, Netanyahu pledged that legislation agreeable to all Israelis, ranging from the secular to the haredim, would be passed within the one-year deadline. “This must be done to prevent a rift in the people. It won’t be easy, but it can be done,” the prime minister said. Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of the United Torah Judaism bloc, who has been involved in an effort to resolve the issue, also welcomed the ruling. “I think that the Knesset will discuss the matter, and that [legislators] will be receptive to each other. We are aware of what everyone’s red lines are and are trying very hard not to cross them,” he said. Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who drew the ire of some Orthodox lawmakers earlier this year when he authored a bill that would limit the number of deferrals, said there had already been contacts with haredi representatives on the issue. Israel’s chief rabbis also welcomed the ruling, as did President Ezer Weizman, who has spoken out in the past against the deferrals. But in reactions that signaled the tough battle that may lie ahead, some haredi rabbis warned that they would not agree to a decision to draft any yeshiva students and would direct them either to go to jail or to leave Israel, rather than serve in the army. Knesset member Rabbi Avraham Leizerson of UTJ called the ruling an “inquisition” and said yeshiva students would overcome the latest attempt by the State of Israel to draft the students. In their petition, Chaim Oron and Amnon Rubinstein of Meretz had argued that the arrangement implemented 50 years ago by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to exempt “a few thousand” yeshiva students from military service had evolved into a rubber stamp, exploited by tens of thousands of yeshiva students. The two Knesset members demanded that a ceiling be set on the number of deferrals issued yearly and that those individuals be closely monitored to ensure they continue their studies and do not go to work. In 1954, the year the status-quo agreement was signed, some 400 yeshiva students were granted deferrals. Today, roughly 2,800 students receive them each year. Oron said he soon planned to introduce into the Knesset a law, based on the petition, that says there must be a ceiling on deferrals and that the deferrals must be closely monitored. According to the army, only 55 percent of 18-year-olds in Israel are currently drafted. Of the remaining 45 percent, some 21 percent are Israeli Arabs, who do not serve, and 8 percent are yeshiva students.

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