Opposition to imposing criminal sanctions on yeshivah students who do not comply with a new military draft law encountered strong opposition in the Knesset this week from chareidi MKs, along with experts who testified before the special committee tasked with reviewing the issue. The committee chairwoman, Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked, is also opposed to criminal sanctions, preferring harsh economic sanctions instead.
The sternest warning against criminal sanctions was heard from United Torah Judaism MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, who told the committee that “if you define yeshivah students who don’t enlist as criminals, then I will call on everyone [even those who are not learning] not to enlist.”
Rabbi Gafni argued that criminalization would accomplish the reverse of the committee’s purported objective, of finalizing a bill that would promote chareidi recruitment.
“If you want chareidim to serve, don’t impose criminal sanctions,” he continued, adding that the trend of increased chareidi enlistment over the past few years would not be strengthened but halted.
Shas MK Ariel Atias raised the specter of a societal rupture of such sanctions were passed into law.
Atias also noted that “certain segments of the chareidi public are angry that we are sitting here at all [participating in this committee]. They want to see an extreme law, so that chareidim will not mix with the secular population…. Listen to what I am saying to you…. Don’t go there.”
In a similar vein, Prof. Menachem Friedman of Bar-Ilan University, a recognized expert in sociology, said at the hearing that it would be “problematic” to criminalize people whose motives for not wanting to enlist were ideological.
“We do not want to create prison camps for people who do not want to fulfill a [particular] law,” the professor said. “It won’t help and will generate much greater opposition.”
Prof. Yedidia Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute said, “People waving about the notion of [national service] equality to the [bitter] end will get not the desired results, but instead a split in Israeli society,” he argued. “We can’t take up a weapon which is impossible to use.”
The main proponents of criminal sanctions continue to be the Yesh Atid MKs. Speaking for the party, MK Ofer Shelah claimed that such measures were the only way to maintain a “national army.”
“Changing the bill by replacing criminal sanctions with financial ones would totally undermine the notion of a national army and service for all,” he said.
The committee headed by Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) earlier this year recommended enforcement of the Law of the Security Services, which calls for up to two years’ imprisonment for anyone who refuses military induction.
“Any attempt to prevent the implementation of obligatory service will encounter uncompromising opposition from us,” said MK Peri this week.
Committee chairwoman Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) informed the members at Tuesday’s hearing that contrary to previous evaluations, it would be legally feasible to impose economic sanctions for those who refuse to serve in the army.
Shaked listed numerous benefits that could be withheld, including: state assistance for rental payments and mortgages, as well as other forms of state subsidized housing, municipal tax discounts, and stipends to yeshivah students.
Shaked pleaded for a pragmatic approach to the problem.
“The question is how to do this,” she said. “What’s the point of passing a law if we know it can’t be enforced? We all know that if we impose criminal sanctions, no one is going to send the military police into Bnei Brak or Yerushalayim.”
Shaked had harsh words for Peri and Yesh Atid’s bullying tactics. “Unlike Peri, I believe in democracy, not the ditatorship of Yesh Atid, which she accused of seeking to obstruct the committee’s progress toward a viable solution.
Shaked said that she intended to bring the matter to a vote by the middle of December, and would abide by the will of the majority.
However, in spite of the criticism, Yesh Atid MK’s expressed confidence that once the issue of criminal sanctions is put to a vote, a majority of the committee will support it.