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Israeli court OKs draft deferrals

JERUSALEM, Feb. 20 (JTA) — Israel´s High Court of Justice has upheld a temporary arrangement granting draft deferments to yeshiva students. On Wednesday, an expanded panel of 11 justices unanimously rejected a challenge from secular legislators and grass-roots organizations against an arrangement extending draft deferrals for yeshiva students until March 2003. The court said a legislative committee trying to come up with permanent legislation on the matter is working intensively and there is no need to strike down the temporary arrangement. The court avoided addressing the politically charged debate over whether yeshiva students should be granted deferrals. At issue are draft exemptions granted annually to fervently Orthodox Israelis who declare "Torah their conscience." The arrangement was devised by Israel´s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who authorized the defense minister to grant a limited number of draft exemptions and deferrals to yeshiva students. In 1954, when the arrangement was signed, some 400 yeshiva students were granted deferrals. According to recent estimates, that number has reached 30,000. The justices ruled in 1998 that the arrangement had created a sense of inequality in Israeli society, and was not anchored in law. It asked the Knesset to pass legislation resolving the issue one way or another. The court extended the deadline several times when legislators proved reluctant to tackle the issue. The 1998 ruling led to the creation of a state-sponsored commission under the direction of Supreme Court Justice Zvi Tal. In April 2000, the Tal Commission put forward a plan to allow yeshiva students to decide for themselves whether to serve in the army. Under that plan, the commission proposed that yeshiva students be given a "trial year" at age 23 to experience life outside the yeshiva. Anyone deciding to continue "on the outside" would be inducted for a short period of military or other national service, followed by the annual reserve duty that other Israeli citizens serve. Legislation reflecting the commission´s proposal passed a first Knesset vote in July 2000. Since then, however, it has been tied up in a special committee established to prepare the legislation for a final vote. In December 2000, when the high court refused to extend the draft deferral arrangement pending final passage of the legislation, Yitzhak Cohen, a legislator from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, submitted a provisional law that extended the deferments for another four and a half months. In March, 2001, following the election of Ariel Sharon as prime minister, Shas conditioned its joining the coalition on an extension of another two years. The court ruled Wednesday after challenges to the draft-exemption arrangement were filed by Joseph Paritzky, a Knesset member from the secularist Shinui Party; Naomi Chazan, a legislator from Meretz, another secularist party; and the Awakening Movement, which advocates a universal draft. The ruling came on the same day that the high court ruled on another sensitive issue. In that decision, the court ruled 9-2 that the Interior Ministry recognize Reform and Conservative conversions for the purpose of registering converts as Jews on their Israeli identity cards. The ruling applies to Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel as well as abroad. Previously, non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel were not officially recognized. The ruling did not address conversion policy for purposes of marriage or the Law of Return.

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