March 14, 2014

In Prison for Learning Torah???

Rabbi Haber

Yesterday, the Knesset passed the poorly named “Equality of Service” law, designed to increase the number of haredim serving in the army. This controversial law brought 300,000 protesters to the streets of Jerusalem two weeks ago, and 150,000 in Manhattan earlier this week.  But despite the unusually harsh rhetoric accusing the government of nothing less than shemad (religious persecution), the absurd claim that they are “going to imprison people for learning Torah” is nothing but a cynical lie.

While I have some very serious reservations about this law, including the clause about criminal sanctions[1], it is important to set the record straight: Even after the passage of this law the State of Israel will not imprison people for learning Torah!  In fact, the State of Israel will continue to pay for Torah study in elementary schools, high schools, yeshivot and seminaries (in addition to paying for synagogues, mikvaot and other religious institutions) and will even continue to grant permanent exemptions to tens of thousands of full-time yeshiva students!

All the law requires is that – after a three-year transition period – less than ten percent of haredim above the age of 21 will be required to enlist, and even this small number can choose National Service options (including several that involve teaching Torah) instead of army service.

The law also does not impose criminal sanctions for learning Torah!  All it says is that in theory, if people break the law and refuse to report for duty, they will be subject to the same criminal penalties as everyone else.

Absolutely nobody thinks that yeshiva students will really be arrested for draft dodging.  This is nothing but a cynical lie designed to serve the interests of extremist politicians on both sides (Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid can now take pride in having “forced the haredim into the army” and the haredi politicians can drum up support for “fighting the evil decree”.  Unfortunately, the fact that neither of these statements has anything to do with reality seems to be irrelevant).

You can agree or disagree with the law (as I said, I disagree with it).  But let’s at least have an honest discussion about the actual reality, and not hysterical screaming about nonsense.


[1] The law will not actually increase the number of haredim serving in the army, and it may even cause a reversal of the existing trend towards greater participation.  The criminal sanctions will never be implemented because the law has too many loopholes to prevent it, and because in any case this clause will only come into effect after the next election when a new government can change or cancel the law if they need to. What the criminal sanctions clause does accomplish, though, is give extremists plenty of ammunition to create hysteria and bring people out to protest.  As I wrote over a year ago, if the goal was to actually increase haredi enlistment in a healthy way, this could be accomplished far better with economic pressure, and it would be a lot harder to drum up support for opposition.

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