UTJ presents bill to shield Haredi draft exemptions, prompting Likud disavowal

Legislation seeks to equate Torah study and military service, leading opposition to rage against proposal and Netanyahu’s party to deny it will be advancing to a vote

Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox man walks outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, July 2, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)
Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox man walks outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, July 2, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers presented a bill on Tuesday to enshrine the value of Torah study in a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, as a way to further cement military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men — but the legislation was quickly shot down by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party amid backlash.

The bill, submitted by members of the United Torah Judaism party, defines Torah study as a core state value, elevating it to be roughly on par with serving in the armed forces, which is mandatory for most Israelis.

In its explanation, the legislation’s seven co-authors wrote that it is aimed at countering possible judicial interference in a separate controversial proposed law that would regulate the drafting of members of the Haredi community into the army, exempting the vast majority of them.

But as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle reacted negatively, the Likud party immediately downplayed the development, saying in statement that the bill “is not on the agenda and won’t be advanced.”

The Yesh Atid party mocked Likud’s response and posted a photograph of Netanyahu’s signature on the coalition agreement promising Haredi parties that the bill will be passed.

Following the Likud disavowal, UTJ issued its own statement saying the bill was based on coalition agreements and “was prepared at the time by us as part of the overall solution” to the subject of Haredi conscription.

UTJ MK Moshe Gafni speaks at a Degel HaTorah faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 9, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The party said that the timing of presenting the bill immediately following the passage of the first element of the government’s judicial overhaul on Monday was “coincidental” and the “whole issue will be formulated in agreements between the coalition parties.”

“We regret those who try to attach to the proposal what is not in it,” the statement added.

But not every member of UTJ appeared to be on board with the timing. Asked about the bill during a Knesset Finance Committee discussion on Tuesday, UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni said: “The timing is entirely unnecessary, it’s wrong, whoever submitted it.”

Asked whether UTJ was behind the submission, Gafni answered: “It didn’t come from us. We’re deliberating about issuing a statement, as is Shas,” the Sephardic Haredi party. “This is time to speak to one another, not to press ahead.”

A spokesperson for Shas said the party was “stunned by the submission of the Basic Law: Torah Study, which was made without our knowledge and despite our wishes.”

The party said that the presentation of the bill this week “is immensely damaging to the efforts to protect yeshiva students. We had agreed to set up an extended team of all parties and army officials, jurists and cabinet ministers to work out a plan… Unfortunately, those who published the bill at present, at the height of a crisis in civil society and serious divisions in the people, has sabotaged the objective and caused grave incitement against yeshiva students.”

A UTJ source told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that the private member’s bill had been filed Tuesday in order to ensure that the legislation would be ready and waiting for its preliminary reading once the Knesset winter session gets underway on October 15.

Private member’s bills must be submitted to the Knesset at least 45 days before a preliminary reading can be held.

The source added, however, that submitting the bill the day after the passage of the government’s highly controversial reasonableness limitation law was designed as a message to Netanyahu — that UTJ now expects its political and legislative demands to be met.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid addresses the Knesset plenum ahead of the passage of the ‘reasonableness’ law, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

News of the bill provoked fury from opposition lawmakers, who pointed to the double standard in government condemnation of thousands of reservist soldiers who threatened to stop volunteering for special duties if the overhaul plan proceeds.

Opposition Leader MK Yair Lapid panned the timing of the bill, writing: “A day after the cancellation of the reasonableness test, the most reckless coalition in the history of the country begins to party at our expense.”

Lapid added that the “destructive government, which has not stopped shouting about ‘refusal,’ submits the ‘refusal and evasion law’ and even dares to call it the ‘fundamental Torah study law.'”

MK Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition National Unity party, said that equating Torah study with military service “depletes the value of the people’s army.”

“If the law passes, it will cause strategic damage to the future of the State of Israel,” wrote Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff. He called on “the majority of coalition members who understand the significance well, and especially the defense minister, not to lend their hand to the dismantling of the IDF and Israeli society.”

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks in the debate before the vote on the ‘reasonableness’ bill in the Knesset, July 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Fellow National Unity member MK Matan Kahana also attacked the timing of the bill, tweeting: “Do you really think that… was the right day to put this bill on the Knesset’s table?” and also warned it would cause “enormous damage” to the Torah world and the country at large.

Opposition Labor party MK Naama Lazimi tweeted that those behind the bill are “working directly to debase the Torah and destroy the people’s army [the IDF].”

The bill, submitted by the United Torah Judaism party, states that “the State of Israel, as a Jewish state, sees the utmost importance in encouraging the study of the Torah and Torah students,” and “the law properly anchors the great importance and great value that the state sees in the study of the Torah, and its desire to encourage Torah study.”

“Those who undertake to devote themselves to learning Torah, for a significant period of time, will be considered to be providing a significant service to the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and this will have an impact on their rights and obligations,” the legislation proclaims.

Coalition agreements with UTJ called for the government to advance the bill before the budget was passed earlier this year. However, due to delays in passing the budget, UTJ MK Moshe Roth said in a statement, he and other party members presented the legislation as a private bill and that work would begin on it when the Knesset reconvenes after its summer recess.

“This is about the implementation of the coalition agreement, and this important law establishes a new attitude to the study of the Torah,” Roth said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study in the Lithuanian Slabodka yeshiva in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, July 8, 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The bill was also quickly criticized by members of the governing coalition.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, while praising the value of Torah study, stressed that it should be not considered equal to serving in the armed forces to defend the country.

“Service in the IDF is an inalienable civic duty,” he tweeted. “There is and will never be a place to compare serving in the IDF and studying Torah,” Gallant wrote. “The defense of the country within the framework of service in the IDF is a supreme value.”

Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli of Likud chastised the bill’s sponsors for their timing, and said that he would not back the legislation (though he does not have a vote since he is not an MK).

“Placing this bill before the Knesset is a harmful travesty at an unfortunate time, and the comparison to service in the army is not fitting or appropriate,” he wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a vote on the so-called reasonableness bill at the Knesset, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Haredi parties conditioned their joining the coalition on the passing of an override clause as part of the government’s drastic overhaul of the judiciary. The clause would enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws even if they are struck down by the High Court of Justice. For the two Haredi parties, the override clause is seen as a key tool in shielding army exemption laws from judicial oversight. The Shas and United Torah Judaism parties hold a combined 18 seats in the Knesset, making them vital for the coalition, which has 64 seats out of 120 total.

The judicial overhaul plan — and in particular the override clause — has been met with months of protest demonstrations by critics who say it will dangerously erode Israel’s democratic nature.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice invalidated the current conscription law, which gives sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. It gave the government a series of deadlines and extensions by which time it was to legislate a new enlistment law, and allowed the Defense Ministry to rely upon the current, struck-down law until a replacement is passed. The government’s 15th, and current, extension to legislate a solution is due to expire at the end of July. However, the government’s underlying, invalidated law had a provision forcing its expiration — and the government’s timeline — a month sooner, on June 30.

As a preemptive move, the government last month approved a decision enabling the military to continue excusing ultra-Orthodox Israelis from the IDF draft.

According to the text of the decision, the cabinet instructed Gallant to order the Israel Defense Forces to not enforce conscription within the Haredi community until March 31, 2024, by which time the government plans to have finalized a new enlistment law.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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