Follow the Money: On the War, Drafting the Yeshiva Students, and the State Budget

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Funding for Torah study institutions is the most substantial question that needs to be addressed at the current time, when Israeli society is rethinking its relations with the Haredi public.

Ultra Orthodox men protesting against the army draft in September 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassonil/Flash90

Among the many shocks experienced by Israeli society since the outbreak of the war has been the jolt to its relations with the Haredi public. At a time when so many families have experienced bereavement, and the IDF has been forced to extend the service of both regular soldiers and reservists, the question of the equal sharing of the burden of military service has become more acute than ever. Israeli society is asking the Haredi public: “Will your brethren come to war while you sit here?” (Numbers 32, 6).

This question is even more complex at the current time than it was in the past. Today, there is no longer any clear legal basis for the deferral of military service for Yeshiva students. The clause in the Military Service Law that permitted this arrangement expired in June 2023, since when the IDF has not granted any service deferrals. To prevent the immediate drafting of yeshiva students, the government passed a decision (on June 25, 2023) to instruct the minister of defense not to take any steps toward such a draft. But this decision has only a temporary application and will expire at the end of March 2024. That is, there has been no arrangement in place for the deferral of military service for Yeshiva students for more than half a year, and even the temporary government decision not to draft them in practice is about to expire.

The fact that the IDF has ceased granting service deferrals to Yeshiva students has created another problem, one that may seem minor but is in fact highly substantive: the absence of any legal basis for funding the institutions attended by these students. If the law no longer affords the provision of deferrals, then how can the government of Israel continue to transfer funding to yeshivot that are home to students who by law, should be in uniform and serving in the IDF?

A petition submitted by the Civil Democracy Movement was heard by the Supreme Court this past Monday, February 26. The main argument put forward by the petitioners is that there is no legal basis for transferring funds to Torah study institutions. The level of financial support payable to such institutions is set according to the number of students they have in attendance, and one of the conditions is that such students have received a military service deferral or exemption. Given the fact that since July 2023, the IDF has ceased issuing deferrals to yeshiva students below the age of exemption, then there is no basis in law for transferring funds to Torah study institutions with students under the age of 26.

This argument can also be presented in a different and even more stark manner. The problem is not just that funds are being transferred without any clear legal basis, but that funds are being transferred to institutions whose students are not performing the duty placed on them by law. By way of comparison, imagine that the state was supporting a cultural institution that had not received the necessary safety permits, or that was not paying the necessary taxes. How can the state transfer funds to institutions whose students, from a legal perspective, are not allowed to attend them if they have not completed their military service?

Focusing on the legality of transferring funds to Yeshivot might be seen as shining a light on a minor infraction and missing the larger issue of drafting Yeshiva students. But in fact, the opposite is true. Funding for Torah study institutions is the most substantial question that needs to be addressed at the current time, when Israeli society is rethinking its relations with the Haredi public. This is because if we wish to increase the proportion of Yeshiva students who enter the IDF and bring them into the labor market, then we must recognize that the appropriate means of doing so are not those of legal enforcement. The state does not have the capability to forcibly drag students out of their study halls and draft them to the IDF against their will. Such an approach would make the issue of military service into a matter of life or death for the Haredi public, one for which they would prefer to sacrifice themselves rather than acquiesce.

Instead, the most effective way to change the rates of military service and participation in the workforce among young Haredim is via financial incentives, both positive and negative—such as significantly reducing the funding provided to Torah study institutions whose students do not serve in the military; giving tax breaks to those who do serve; and increasing the tax burden of those who do not. Thus, the question facing the Supreme Court, regarding the legality of transferring funds to Torah study institutions, actually brings us closer to the heart of the matter: how to rewrite the relations between Israeli society and the Haredi public, and how to encourage the integration of young Haredim into Israeli society.


This article was published in the Times of Israel.