The ultra-Orthodox Knesset faction of United Torah Judaism (UTJ) warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday that any attempt to keep yeshiva students from their Torah studies by means of a new law restricting military exemptions would prompt the party to resign from the ruling coalition immediately.
According to a report in the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Shabbat, MK Moshe Gafni was quoted in the weekend supplement of the community newspaper Yated Ne’eman saying that spiritual leader Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman has “explicitly instructed us to resign [from the government] immediately if there were an attempt to block the study of Torah from our students.”
The Tal Law had been in effect since 2002. The intention of the law was to encourage more yeshiva students to enlist in the army, allowing them to defer their service — meant to begin at the age of 18 — until they were 23. At that time, they were to have the option of continuing full-time study, serving one year of national service or 16 months of military service (as opposed to the standard three-year tour of duty).
However, the law never really succeeded in bringing yeshiva students into the military framework and this past February, the High Court of Justice overturned the law and ordered the government to draft a replacement for it.
Last week Kadima, the largest party in the Knesset, joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, thus canceling the early elections which were expected to take place in September. The agreement by which Kadima joined the coalition stipulated that a bill offering an alternative to the Tal Law be presented to the Knesset within two and a half months. The bill is expected to recommend a gradual increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs who are required to perform either military or civil national service.
On Thursday, Kadima chairman and freshly appointed Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz placed Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner at the head of the panel that will draft the bill in cooperation with other partners in the governing coalition. Plesner had previously chaired a Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee panel on this issue.
Sources in UTJ, which holds five seats in the current government, were quoted in Kikar Shabbat saying that the prime minister has promised not to make any unilateral decisions regarding the forced army recruitment of yeshiva students without consulting with members of the ultra-Orthodox parties.
Gafni went on to say that “any attempt to keep Torah scholars from their studies is an attack on the very soul of the nation… we cannot compromise on this at all… anyone whose heart desires to study Torah must be allowed to learn Torah, without quotas and without conditions. We will never allow the status of Torah scholars to be eroded.”