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Secular-religious rift highlighted again

JERUSALEM, April 17 (JTA) — The criticism that greeted a plan to allow yeshiva students to decide for themselves whether they will serve in the army underscores the polarization in Israel on synagogue-state issues.

The plan issued by a government-appointed commission drew fire not only from secularists on both ends of the political spectrum. Some haredi, or fervently Orthodox, groups also expressed reservations about the panel’s recommendations.

The commission, led by former Supreme Court Justice Zvi Tal, proposed that yeshiva students be given a “trial year” between the ages of 23 and 24 to experience life outside the yeshiva.

Anyone deciding to continue “on the outside” would then be inducted for a short period of military service or other national service, followed by the annual reserve duty that other Israeli citizens are obliged to serve.

When the panel’s recommendations were issued last week, Tal said they would enable thousands of haredim to enter the business world after their brief army service, instead of having to remain in a yeshiva until age 40 to maintain their army exemption.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak formed the Tal Commission following a 1998 ruling by the High Court of Justice that canceled a decades-old arrangement under which the yeshiva students are entitled to draft exemptions.

The justices said at the time that the arrangement, which has sparked tensions between secular and fervently Orthodox Israelis, had created a growing sense of inequality in Israeli society.

In 1954, when the arrangement was signed, some 400 yeshiva students were granted deferrals.

Now, according to the Tal Commission, that number has reached 30,000. Of these, the report says, some 14,000 are likely never to perform national service.

Moreover — and this is the major cause of the mounting public unrest that indirectly led to the commission’s creation — that figure is “rapidly rising,” according to the report.

After the commission issued its recommendations April 13, criticisms of its report have come from three main quarters:

• Non-Orthodox politicians and commentators, both from the political left and right, who feel the commission failed to redress the fundamental inequity inherent in the yeshiva deferral system;

• The army, which believes the Tal report enshrines the present, inequitable system and that this could erode morale among soldiers; and

• Some sections of the Ashkenazi haredi community, where it is felt that any tampering with the present arrangements could cause wholesale damage to haredi yeshivas.

Army sources, citing the report’s finding that 9.2 percent of this year’s potential inductees deferred their service, predict that the figure will rise to 15 percent within a relatively few years.

These sources, clearly anxious to persuade the government and the Knesset to reject the report’s recommendations, demand that a numerical cap be set on the number of deferments — both on the overall total and on the number granted each year.

The sources also contend that the choice of what form of service the former yeshiva students perform should be in the exclusive domain of the army itself, not in the hands of the individual student after his “test year,” as the Tal Commission appears to recommend.

In the political community, criticism has centered on the commission’s proposal that its recommendations be enshrined in law.

Legislators from many parties say this would make the present situation even worse.

If the deferment system became law, it would take on a new legitimacy that it does not deserve, say the critics, who are likewise unimpressed by the commission’s suggestion that the legislation contain a five-year review clause.

Knesset opponents of the recommendations said this week they are confident they already have some 50 votes opposing such legislation. They believe that with a vocal public campaign they could cobble together a majority of the Knesset’s 120 members.

Barak has so far refrained from taking sides in the debate surrounding the commission’s recommendations.

Tal wrote in his introduction that several members of the commission were uncomfortable with the fact that the recommendations in effect perpetuate the present system.

“But even those members who oppose the deferral in principle believe that the change they want to see will come about only by means of gradual and moderate steps” that will “facilitate the haredi community’s partial and gradual involvement in the economy and in national service.”

The commission added, significantly, that their long discussions with expert witnesses and among themselves had convinced them that “the problem is not one of security,” but rather “one of society.”

Given the criticism the report has triggered, the question would seem to be whether Israeli society is ripe for a “partial and gradual” attempt to heal a long-standing rift.

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