Court throws yeshiva draft issue into Knesset


JERUSALEM, Dec. 20 (JTA) – A High Court of Justice decision on the controversial issue of drafting yeshiva students threatens to reignite religious-secular tension just as Israel embarks on an election campaign.

An expanded panel of 11 justices ruled Wednesday against a state request to grant the Knesset three more months to deal with the issue of military exemptions granted to yeshiva students.

In 1998, the court canceled a decades-old arrangement under which yeshiva students are entitled to draft exemptions, and ordered the Knesset to pass legislation on the matter within a year. The court extended the deadline several times when legislators proved reluctant to tackle the issue, always citing one emergency or inconvenience or another.

This week, the court ruled that the Knesset had taken too long to find a solution.

Though the court did not propose a solution, the fervently Orthodox Shas Party denounced the court decision as a “declaration of war on the world of Torah and Judaism” for stirring up the issue anew.

Condemning the court as a “rubber-stamp” of secular legislators, Shas accused the justices of “brutally violating a delicate religious-social understanding on the identity and special character of Israel.”

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.

Now, according to the findings of a commission created following the 1998 ruling, 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 landmark ruling led to the creation of the state-sponsored Tal Commission, which in April 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 then be inducted for a short period of military service or other national service, followed by the annual reserve duty that other Israeli citizens serve.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak sought earlier this year to pass a bill based on the commission’s recommendations. The efforts were stopped several weeks ago, when the Knesset began considering holding early elections.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the government currently has no plans to present legislation on the yeshiva draft. However, that could change as Barak heads into an election campaign in which he needs to shore up support among secular voters.

The draft deferrals granted under the current arrangement expired earlier this month.

Though the court refused to grant the extension – which was the fourth requested by the state – the justices said they did not expect the army to begin immediately calling up yeshiva students.

“We are aware of the difficulties before the army. It cannot be expected to act from one day to the next,” the justices wrote.

Knesset member Tommy Lapid, head of the secularist Shinui Party, said that in light of the court ruling the government must immediately stop national insurance institute payments to yeshiva students, who he said are now AWOL.

The Movement for Quality Government welcomed the High Court decision.

“Especially in this time of emergency, everyone must bear the burden equally, and enlist in the army to defend our homeland,” the movement said.

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