Draft Deferrals for Yeshiva Students Sparking Secular-religious Tensions

Secular-religious frictions have flared again in Israel, as the Knesset prepares to hold final readings of a bill to regulate draft deferrals for yeshiva students.

The Knesset was slated to begin debate Tuesday of the so-called Tal Bill, named after the former Supreme Court justice who headed a commission to resolve the issue of the military deferrals. Voting on second and third readings of the proposed legislation was expected to take place Wednesday.

Parliamentary observers expect the legislation to pass.

The bill calls for granting yeshiva students draft deferrals until age 22, when they will be given the opportunity to take a year off from studies to work without being drafted.

At the end of that year, the students will be required to decide whether to declare Torah their “profession” and resume their studies, or do a shortened military service or one year of national service.

The scheduled votes come four years after Israel’s High Court of Justice struck down the Defense Ministry’s 50-year-old arrangement for granting exemptions to yeshiva students. Critics claimed the arrangement had evolved from a means to promote Torah story for a limited number of Jewish scholars into a rubber stamp for thousands of draft-dodgers.

Over the years, the issue has become a political hot potato. Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his predecessor, Ehud Barak, came out against the exemptions before they came into power, only to moderate their positions upon becoming prime minister and facing the political clout of the fervently Orthodox parties.

The issue has become even more volatile in light of the Palestinian intifada, which has focused attention on the burden of providing security for Israel’s citizens.

It was in this charged atmosphere that a Knesset committee preparing the legislation for presentation approved an amendment last week that would require all yeshiva students to serve two weeks each year in the Civil Guard.

Fervently Orthodox legislators, who were absent for the committee vote, demanded another vote.

The second vote was held Monday, and the decision was overturned. Backing the motion to reject the civil service amendment were the religious parties, the Likud and the right-wing National Union Party.

Members of Labor, Meretz and Shinui voted to keep the amendment, and one Likud Knesset member, Ayoub Kara, broke from party ranks to abstain.

Committee chair Yossi Katz of Labor, who initiated the amendment, called its defeat a big mistake.

“We have before us a proposal which was intended in a clearly symbolic way to convey to the public, all of the public, that no Jew in this state is exempt from some kind of service to the State of Israel,” Army Radio quoted Katz as saying.

Knesset member Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism attacked Katz for introducing the amendment.

“This is a controversial issue that contradicts the basis of the Tal Bill,” Gafni said after the amendment was approved by the committee in the initial vote.

Though it was defeated in committee, the provision was expected to resurface in the Knesset on Tuesday, when it would be voted on as a reservation to the Tal Bill.

If the bill is approved in its final readings, it will go into effect in six months and remain in effect for five years. Near the end of that period, another Knesset debate would be held to decide whether to renew the law.

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