Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Av 5760 - August 9, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Bnei Torah -- Our Main Concern

by Rabbi Nosson Zeev Grossman

At the beginning of July the law for deferment of yeshiva students from service in the IDF was passed on its first reading, followed immediately by practical preparations for the final stages of the legislation. The Knesset Committee, bowing to demands from various MKs, decided to appoint a special committee to discuss the law's exact text in preparation for its second and third readings. For a few weeks it took a back seat to the dramatic events at Camp David, but now it has returned as Prime Minister Barak attempts to restore his battered government, to include Shas and UTJ, perhaps from the outside.

This law was passed only because of the High Court's ruling about eighteen months ago that ordered the Knesset to decide whether to legalize this deferment or discontinue it altogether. Last year after Ehud Barak was elected prime minister of Israel and he began negotiating with political parties for their support, maranan verabonon shlita instructed the United Torah Jewry representatives to demand legislation for this deferment as the one and only condition upon which they will support the coalition government, and not to ask for any government ministries or any other responsibilities.

With the passing of the law's first reading, the coalition government has begun keeping its commitment, albeit after a long delay of many months, to ensure that deferment for yeshiva students will not be an unceasing goad for public debates and petitions to the High Court. UTJ insists that the section in the current law that requires it to be approved anew every five years be stricken before the final vote, to avoid arguments (and the necessity for what they always call "blackmail") every few years. Nonetheless, the gedolei Yisroel directed that even the flawed draft of this law be passed and the necessary corrections be inserted before the final bill is voted on.

During the stormy parliamentary debate on this bill that Barak's government submitted to the Knesset, UTJ representatives reminded the MKs that a long time ago the UTJ placed a simple bill before the Knesset. That short and concise bill was intended to legalize the present condition because of the High Court's ruling. The bill contained one line only and read: "The Minister of Security is authorized to grant a deferral to someone who meets the conditions of Toroso umnoso (for whom his Torah studies are his sole occupation)." Very simple. The same situation would continue, nothing more, but also nothing less. What was in effect for more than fifty years should continue as before. If the High Court orders that parliamentary legislation must authorize the Minister of Defense to defer the army service of whoever he wishes to defer, that legislation could have done it in a few simple words.

This reminder was intended to criticize the deliberate and artificial storm created by many politicians in the middle of August. What was the reason for such a commotion? What has changed?

UTJ also wanted to condemn the delay in presenting this bill by the Prime Minister, and the form in which it was eventually presented, as the UTJ representatives noted during the Knesset debates.

Instead of asking any novice law student to write up a simple text of one line as the UTJ demanded, the Prime Minister preferred to complicate the whole matter and drag his feet for a whole year. By his doing so, the issue remained on the public agenda for many long months and the suggested plan was generally regarded by society as unjustified. Had the Prime Minister at the outset of his government presented a similar bill to be voted on immediately, the whole painful process could have been avoided. At that time it would have been easier for him to enlist the support of all coalition members who were eager to begin enjoying the pleasure of governing the country, instead of waiting for them to be comfortably settled in their overstuffed chairs for a whole year.

How unfortunate it is that the bill finally presented by the PM is not to everyone's satisfaction. "Many MKs, myself included, find fault with either the law in general or many of its paragraphs," said Rabbi Moshe Gafni, a UTJ representative. He explained: "I am against the concept of a temporary provision in this law, meaning that every five years we will be subject to political extortion.

"There have been complaints that civilian service (offered by the new law as an alternative to army service for chareidim who at a certain age want to stop studying Torah full time and to join the working force) is a lack of equality. I answered: `Did we ask for this?'"

Rabbi Gafni explained that surely civilian service for chareidim who do not study Torah instead of military service is discriminatory and inequitable but "we did not ask for this. We demand only that someone who studies Torah be deferred from military service. This is completely equitable since he serves and protects the nation with his Torah. However, we are not asking for special benefits for those who do not study Torah."

The message Rabbi Gafni conveyed in the Knesset plenum and on the media was echoed by other UTJ MKs who declared their lack of satisfaction with the proposed bill.

At Chanukah 5759 after the High Court delivered its decision, Yated Ne'eman printed a kol korei from maranan verabonon the gedolei Yisroel shlita under the title of Eis Tzoroh LeYaakov. In this letter, signed by all members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, they protested ardently against the High Court and its attempts to cancel the deferral arrangement of Toroso umnoso. The gedolei Torah wrote: "Any change or compromise in the present arrangement is out of the question - - under any circumstances."

This declaration has been the stand taken by the gedolei Yisroel and the chareidi public since the State's inception. The arrangement intended to allow yeshiva and kollel students to study without disruption should not be changed. As mentioned, this arrangement is meant only for those who study Torah and not for chareidim who work.

But Ehud Barak tried constantly to give special bonuses to someone who discontinues his Torah studies and leaves his status of Toroso Umnoso. UTJ representatives have clarified repeatedly that according to the directions of the gedolei Yisroel we only demand deferment for those who are Toroso Umnoso and we do not ask for any privileges for chareidim who work.

The PM, however, decided to include this matter in the coalition agreement and he even inserted it in an additional paragraph. Barak claims that this arrangement is for "the benefit of the chareidim" since it offers easier terms for those who have decided to leave their status of Toroso umnoso. He and his advisers want to encourage chareidim to join the work force.

The PM and his colleagues argue that they are not injuring the deferral arrangement. On the contrary, on their own initiative they are including benefits for those who are not Toroso umnoso such as civilian service instead of military service and other benefits. He also claimed to be compelled to do so.

When the law came up for debate in the Knesset we learned from personal experience that what did not seem to be a change for the worse is liable to destroy the entire deferral arrangement because of the feeling that a change is being made "in which the chareidim will gain." Various political spokesmen attacked the new sections in the law referring to those who are not Toroso umnoso. They asked what justification is there to give deferral or reduce military service for someone who is not Toroso umnoso -- it being a deviation in the status quo and not anchored in the historical need of those who study Torah. This is evident discrimination and lack of equality between citizens.

The above was asserted again and again in the middle of July, in interviews with the media and newspaper articles. Many politicians hastened to condemn the chareidim who are "exploiting" the arrangement for those who are Toroso umnoso to obtain privileges even for those who are not.

We should point out that the UTJ representatives deserve praise for their endless efforts to clarify that this "addition" to the law was not initiated by them and they have no part in it. Their competent reaction was most unfortunately in vain: "This is `your' law' and it was passed because you demanded it," argued those opposing the law. They had difficulty accepting the simple truth that the benefits for chareidim who work were not proposed because we demanded them.

Let us make one point quite clear: Chareidim are not in favor of military service in the present Israeli army. It is no secret that military service causes spiritual danger for all who join its ranks, and as any religious Jew who went into an army base will testify. It was for good reason that Ben Gurion defined the army as a "melting pot" that bequeaths the secular and Zionist character to every citizen. This, unfortunately, is the reality.

Any religious Jew who left full-time Torah study and is drafted into the army prays that he will be rejected and so spared from certain spiritual damage. How fortunate indeed if his tefillos are answered. This ideal is our aspiration, but we are well aware that in actuality we cannot demand privileges for religious Jews in military service and surely no hope exists to legislate this in the present reality. We can only demand the minimum that is vital for us: a deferral for those who study Torah. We are unable to help those who have ceased studying and are not even asking for any law to award them special privileges.

It will therefore be inconceivable to demand advantages for those who are not Toroso umnoso since by demanding too much we will not gain even what is vital for our existence. It would jeopardize society's acceptance of the present condition that takes into consideration those who study Torah either because of the status quo or in recognition of the historical value of studying Torah.

How foolish are the secular elements who blame us for those sections in the law for which we never worked, the sections inserted at Barak's insistence create the false impression of our asking privileges for those who left the beis midrash.

We must clarify again that we want no change at all neither to hurt nor benefit us. We ask for no privileges for those who do not study Torah full time since that will surely be considered a lack of equality. We are only demanding to maintain the current condition that was in effect since the establishment of the State.

In conclusion, the heads of government should realize the eternal Jewish truth, which even Bilaam had to admit when he blessed the Jewish Nation whom he wanted to curse. "How good are your tents Yaakov." The Seforno explains: "These are the `homes' of Torah as `sitting in tents' and `he dwelled in the tent of Shem' and also `anyone who would seek Hashem would go out to the ohel mo'ed.' Bilaam said `How good' since they benefit the whole nation not only those who are engaged in them."

This is the most important task for us today: We must ensure the existence of "homes of Torah" that will benefit all of the Jewish Nation with the Torah they study.

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