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UTJ bill would make Torah study ‘core state value,’ enshrine draft exemptions

Likud lawmakers oppose the proposal.

United Torah Judaism Party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf heads to the podium at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Dec. 29, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
United Torah Judaism Party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf heads to the podium at the Knesset in Jerusalem, Dec. 29, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The United Torah Judaism Party on Tuesday proposed the passage of a quasi-constitutional Basic Law that would define Torah study as a “core state value,” in a bid to effectively place on par the religious practice with military service and thus codify in perpetuity exemptions for haredim from the IDF.

“The State of Israel as a Jewish state views the encouragement of Torah study and Torah students to be of utmost importance, and regarding their rights and duties, those who dedicate themselves to studying Torah for an extended period should be viewed as having served a significant service to the State of Israel and the Jewish people,” reads the bill.

“Torah study is a fundamental principle in the heritage of the Jewish people,” it also says.

The legislation was immediately denounced by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant describing military service as the “highest civic duty.”

“Torah study is an important element in keeping our embers alive as a people and I have an appreciation for those who study,” he said, but qualified: “It is important to remember that there is no room for comparison between serving in the IDF and studying Torah. Defending the state in the framework of service in the IDF is a supreme value.

“We will continue to ensure that those who give more [to the nation] will receive more,” added Gallant.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli of Likud said that “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.”

Members of the opposition also blasted the proposed legislation, with opposition and Yesh Atid Party leader Yair Lapid saying that “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 Basic Law: Torah Study.”

There also appears to be an internal dispute among the Orthodox factions in the coalition as to the timing of the proposed legislation.

UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee meeting, said at a committee meeting on Tuesday that “the timing is entirely unnecessary, it’s wrong, whoever submitted it.”

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.”

One of the bill‘s aims is to prevent the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, from striking down a proposed law that would regulate the drafting of haredi men into the army and exempt the vast majority from service.

Legislation being drafted would lower the age until which ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, Jewish men who do not serve in the IDF need to receive draft deferments and significantly increase the pay of combat soldiers. The initiative would also reduce the length of time soldiers in positions deemed less essential need to serve.

While Israelis are generally drafted into the military aged 18, most haredi men continue to receive exemptions from service until they reach the current age limit of 26. To do so they remain in yeshivas until then. By lowering the age limit to 23, the government hopes to encourage haredim to enter the workforce earlier.

For decades, ultra-Orthodox Israelis have received near-blanket exemptions from national service, but in 2012 the Supreme Court struck down the law permitting the arrangement. The court overturned a new law on the matter in 2017.

Since then, defense ministers have received more than a dozen extensions from the court, as the Knesset failed to pass legislation on the issue.

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