Ehud Barak forcing showdown on deferrals for yeshiva students

JERUSALEM — Efforts to end military service exemptions for yeshiva students have received a new impetus — a legislative proposal from Israel's most highly decorated soldier.

Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, a former Israel Defense Force chief of staff, announced this week that he would soon introduce legislation requiring compulsory military service — or alternative national service — for yeshiva students.

The debate over exempting yeshiva students from military service comes amid growing tensions between the fervently religious, or haredi, communities and the general Israeli public. Given that 18-year-old Israelis are obligated to do three years of army service, the yeshiva student exemptions touch a sensitive nerve on both sides of the debate.

Barak's announcement has sparked a predictable deluge of criticism from the fervently religious parties.

But the political jury is still out on whether the opposition leader's proposal will harm or aid his bid for the premiership.

For now, Barak apparently has calculated that his chances of attracting haredi votes are slim, while the Israeli public's animosity toward the yeshiva students who receive automatic exemptions is growing.

Ever since Israel's founding 50 years ago, young Orthodox men have been able to obtain a military deferment by declaring, "The Torah is my profession" and presenting the requisite proof that they are full-time yeshiva students.

The deferment was originally enacted by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, at the request of leading rabbis and Orthodox politicians, as a way of preserving the then-minuscule yeshiva world in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.

But the number of those affected has steadily increased with the subsequent growth of Israel's fervently religious community. Some 30,000 men now receive a deferment from service in the IDF.

Moreover, the figure is surging: In 1997, 7.5 percent of all 18-year-old boys — a total of 3,000 — received a deferment on religious grounds. This represented a 48 percent increase over the 1995 totals.

Social scientists identify the deferment system as the most potent cause of animosity toward the haredi community on the part of Israel's general population.

In the Zionist-Orthodox community, by contrast, young men either serve their full three years of military service or undertake a five-year program that combines army service with study at one of the "hesder" yeshivot.

Last year, Finance Minister Ya'acov Ne'eman, himself Orthodox, proposed that fervently religious married men be encouraged to serve truncated terms in the military — after which they would join the reserves, and, more importantly, join the workforce.

Men who receive military deferments as full-time yeshiva students are forbidden by law to work.

There is a growing awareness among Israelis of the high cost to society of the rampant poverty present in the fervently religious community — and that it is caused, above all else, by the fact that large numbers of haredi men are not wage-earners.

But Ne'eman's ideas were rejected by the haredi establishment.

Yeshiva deans and haredi political leaders insisted that young men must spend years secluded in yeshivot so that a few among them can grow to Talmudic eminence.

They maintained that taking out time to do army service would irreparably dislocate this process of learning and character building.

Given the composition of the governing coalition, with the two fervently religious parties — holding a total of 14 Knesset seats — lined up behind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was never likely that Ne'eman's suggestion would crystallize into a formal legislative effort.

Further undermining the likelihood of this occurring is the stance of another key partner in the coalition, the Zionist-Orthodox National Religious Party, which has nine Knesset seats.

Four months ago, Barak pledged that if elected prime minister he would turn Ne'eman's plan into action. Now, two years before the next scheduled elections, he has gone a step further by initiating a legislative effort from his current position as leader of the opposition in the Knesset.

In the process, he has thrown down a gauntlet likely to put the Likud and its non-Orthodox coalition partners in an embarrassing position.

For there can be little doubt that Barak's proposal, like Ne'eman's before it, will garner wide popular support — and not only among traditionally left-of-center voters.

Indeed, this political reality seems at the core of Barak's strategic thinking.

Sources close to the Labor leader say he has virtually written off any hope of attracting fervently religious voters when he runs for prime minister.

And their ire quickly surfaced this week.

Meir Porush, the deputy minister of housing from the United Torah Judaism bloc, which holds four Knesset seats, called Barak "a small-time politician" who sought to make political capital by fanning hatred of the fervently religious.

Shlomo Benizri of the Shas Party, which holds 10 Knesset seats, warned that the Labor leader was destroying any chance that the haredi parties would serve in a coalition under him.

Other Orthodox politicians predicted that Barak would yet seek the forgiveness of the haredim.

Barak's calculation, however, is that the crucial middle-of-the-road non-haredi voter, whom he must woo if he is to break the Likud's hold on the premiership, is likely to be impressed by his show of courage in the face of haredi threats.

Barak believes the public popularity of his initiative will outweigh, in the final political analysis, the haredi community's denunciations.

He won rare accolades for his move from the liberal Meretz Party, whose leader, Yossi Sarid, said that at last Labor was speaking to the fervently religious in "the language they understand — the language of firmness and determination to fight."