Israeli parliament approves law exempting ultra-Orthodox from army service

The new law was voted in by a count of 49 in favor and 36 opposed.

The Jerusalem Post/November 24, 2015

By Arik Bender, Jeremy Sharon, Lahav Harkov

The Knesset late Monday approved the second and third readings of a bill which effectively postpones a previous law mandating ultra-Orthodox conscription into the IDF.

The new law was voted in by a count of 49 in favor and 36 opposed.

Likud MKs Sharren Haskel and Yoav Kisch did not take part in the vote.

MK Merav Ben-Ari (Kulanu) also skipped the vote, but made sure to find an opposition MK to offset her absence.

The controversial amendment to the law for haredi conscription, demanded by haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas effectively annuls the mandatory legal requirement for haredi yeshiva students to perform national service.

Opposition members spoke out fiercely against the amendment during a debate in the plenum, describing it as “morally bankrupt” and saying that it abolished “justice, fairness, and equality.”

The previous law, passed in March 2014 at the behest of Yesh Atid, was despised by UTJ and Shas because it threatened to limit the number of full-time yeshiva students who are able to gain exemptions to military or civilian service.

The amendment postpones the implementation of obligatory enlistment on full-time yeshiva students, which was supposed to come into effect in 2017, until 2020.

But after 2020, the terms of the amendment allow the government to set targets for enlistment from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector “in accordance with the recommendation of the defense minister.”

As under the terms of the previous law, full-time yeshiva students will be able to postpone their enlistment until the age of 21.

If the targets set by the government are not met however, the defense minister has the authority to exempt yeshiva students over the age of 21 from national service if he so wishes, “while bearing in mind” targets established by the government, until the age of 26 when the yeshiva students will receive a final exemption from military service.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud) presented the bill to the Knesset, and insisted that it preserved the requirement for obligatory service for yeshiva students, despite the clause allowing the defense minister to grant exemptions.

“We want to see the haredim integrating into national service, and the government thinks that this law will strengthen the ability of the haredi community to attain those targets,” said Hanegbi.

“But when you have reckless legislation, people will not enlist. There are thousands of haredi men in the army today, and we hope that this legislation will lead to thousands more entering the army in the coming years allowing for haredi integration into national service in a gradual manner.”

Following Hanegbi’s presentation, a series of MKs from the opposition took to the podium to rail against the law.

MK Yaakov Peri (Yesh Arid), one of the chief architects of the 2014 law, rejected Hanegbi’s assertion that the amendment did not abolish the mandatory requirement to serve, saying that the law passed by Yesh Atid was being totally eviscerated.

“This law annuls the principles of justice, fairness and equality,” he said. “It is not moral and not principled, and narrow politics are victorious and directing the decision making process... Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is just doing everything simply to survive.”

MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) said the amendment completely annuls the previous law.

“It’s written in an ambiguous manner so it is unclear exactly what happens then, but obligatory national service for all will not be in effect in 2020 or afterwards,” he said.

“Not only is the defense minister made into the cat guarding the milk, he’s determining the amount of cream in the milk too,” said Bar-Lev in reference to the powers afforded the defense minister in the new law amendment.

Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, denounced the amendment, saying the current wave of terrorism being dealt with by the security services served to highlight the “moral bankruptcy” of the new law.

“At this time, between one terrorist murder and the next, between one funeral and the next, this law is being passed and is abolishing the model of the people’s army,” she said.

“We will not sit silently when the foundations of the State of Israel are being uprooted...and [this] simply encourages division and schism in the Jewish people and is destroying us from within.

“Fulfilling the Torah and studying Torah should not be a fig leaf for people not wanting to go to the army.”

Kisch (Likud), a former activist for haredi conscription, refused to vote for the amendment, after his requests to change the bill were rejected. Haskel (Likud) also said she would not vote for the bill as it stood.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a meeting to try and convince him to vote in favor but, as of press time, he was insisting on abstaining.

A Kulanu source said some MKs in the party who are uncomfortable with the bill threatened to walk out of the vote if Kisch defies coalition discipline.

While the coalition was still likely to have a majority in favor of the bill, having some MKs skip the vote without permission could undermine coalition stability. As such, those who do so are likely to face sanctions, like losing coveted spots in prestigious committees or not having their bills pushed forward by their faction.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid railed against the bill in a faction meeting, pointing out that the vote is taking place during a wave of terrorism.

“While security forces are stretched as far as they can be, on this day, the Knesset is voting against IDF soldiers,” he stated.

Lapid accused Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Education Minister Naftali Bennett of political opportunism.

“They claim that in the last Knesset, Yesh Atid forces them to pass the equality in the burden law, and in this Knesset, the haredim are forcing them to cancel it,” he said.

“It’s all for the good of the coalition; they have no values.”

A poll of 500 people conducted by the Smith Institute for the Hiddush religious pluralism lobbying group last week on the Internet showed 76 percent of the Israeli Jewish public are against the new law, with 82% of non-haredi respondents expressing opposition to it.

The poll also showed a level of opposition to the amendment among those who voted for the parties currently comprising the governing coalition, with 68% of Likud voters, 87% of Kulanu voters, and 71% of Bayit Yehudi voters opposed to the law.

“It’s harder to think of a broader consensus among the nation than the opposition to this new law,” said Hiddush director, Rabbi and attorney Uri Regev.

“Despite this, the Zionist parties of the coalition are determined to trample not only equality in the burden of military service but also their voters. It’s not easy to understand how the MKs of Likud, Kulanu and Bayit Yehudi can sleep at night and what stories they tell themselves in order to justify their severe betrayal of soldiers and their families. It appears that there is no price too high in their eyes to preserve their power, even the targeted killing of the value of the obligation of service and the model of the people’s army.”

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