Knesset Committee Permits Review of IDF Exemptions for Religious Girls

The Knesset building (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Despite the firm stance of chareidi MKs, who cited the clear ruling of Gedolei Yisrael of previous generations that service by women in the IDF is “yehareg v’al yaavor,” the Joint Committee of the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Constitution and Justice committees on Tuesday approved new regulations to the women’s draft law, and the forming of a committee to examine girls who received an exemption on the basis of religious observance.

The MKs of UTJ, Shas and Jewish Home strongly criticized the formation of a committee that consists of a clear majority of secular members, and wondered if it could decide on the veracity of the religious declaration of the applicants.

According to the law passed in 1978, any girl who meets the religious criteria – that she doesn’t travel on Shabbos and keeps kosher – can seek an exemption from military service on religious grounds. It is inconceivable, said the MKs, that this will now need to be verified by a committee of non-religious representatives.

Throughout the discussion, the chareidi representatives – Rabbi Meir Porush, Rabbi Uri Maklev (UTJ) and Rabbi Yoav Ben-Tzur (Shas) – vehemently insisted that any girl who is religiously observant has the right to receive an exemption.

The Joint Committee of the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Constitution and Justice committees, comprised of eight representatives from the coalition and the opposition, approved the new regulations. Even after the MKs asked for a second vote, the outcome was the same.

Deputy Minister Rabbi Porush reiterated that it is inconceivable that a Jewish girl seeking exemption from military service on religious grounds will be put to the test by representatives of the Ministry of Defense who are not members of the Torah-observant community.

He added that according to the letter of the law, a girl need not be examined for “full” Shabbos observance, as the law says that “a girl who does not travel on Shabbos, who does not violate the Shabbos in public and declines military service based on the call of Gedolei Yisrael that the enlistment of girls for military service is ‘yehareg v’al yaavor‘ is to be given the exemption, without any interference.”

He clarified that “if we examine the wording of the law it states that one who declares that she does not travel on Shabbos can receive a religious exemption. Likewise, even a girl who does not observe Shabbos to the full letter of the law, but meets the criteria of the draft law, does not have to report for the draft, if she declares that she is religious.”

The joint committee has already held an additional meeting on the issue that has thrown the chareidi street into turmoil, regarding exemption criteria from the army for religious women. The earlier discussion took place last month and concluded with no progress after the army declared that some 2,000 girls who had submitted statements claiming religious identity ultimately did not receive an exemption.

The meeting on Tuesday addressed Clause 40 of the Defense Service Law, which regulates the issue of exemptions from the army on religious grounds. The clause states that the exemption can be granted to anyone who declares that for religious reasons she cannot do army service, because she keeps kashrus at home and outside the home, and does not travel on Shabbos. Amendment 18 to the law seeks to simplify the procedures regarding annulment of the exemption due to religious recognition, in the event that the conditions for the exemption cease to exist for the draftee – for example if it emerges that the religious declaration is not in line with the reality.

According to the regulations approved by the joint committee, it was decided that the committee will be headed by a judge or a candidate suited to be a judge, and will consist of five members, including a public representative to be appointed on the recommendation of the Chief Rabbis and the military chaplain, and two additional representatives from the army. Three of the committee members will be women.

According to Amendment 18, the religious exemption can also be annulled when the IDF has clear grounds to assume that the girl has acted in violation of one of the criteria that she has declared, but the army wants to base their decisions primarily on the clause containing the criteria for religious recognition, because of the possibility for various interpretations that are already being applied in order to withhold exemptions from girls who file for them.

During the stormy session on Tuesday, the chareidi MKs expressed many reasons for objecting to the current regulations. In recent weeks they have held meetings with Defense Ministry and army personnel officials in an effort to reach agreements on the IDF’s recent withholding of exemptions for girls who have filed declarations. These include the case of a religious girl who studies in a non-religious school, and cases of baalos teshuvah.

In response to the committee members’ surprise at the vehement reaction, Rabbi Porush clarified: “When my daughters received their first draft orders, I quoted to them the instructions of Gedolei Yisrael according to which army service for girls is under the category of ‘yehareg v’al yaavor.’ That is the directive of Gedolei Yisrael, and that’s how we must act.”

Rabbi Maklev added that “in order to prove that a girl is not speaking the truth, absolute proof must be presented in order to annul the exemption. There has to be an objective test. Is this being done?”

MK Rabbi Yoav Ben Tzur added that “just like medical committees will not seat someone on them who is not an expert in the medical subject, so, too, there needs to be people who know how to ask the questions. A majority of religious people” who are familiar in a firsthand way with the lifestyle of a Torah-observant Jew.

Committee chairman MK Avi Dichter said that ambiguity is not good. “The law does not tolerate ambiguity, and we will have to devote a separate discussion on how to make sure that this ambiguity is removed.”

During the discussion, representatives of Habayit Hayehudi tried to oppose the regulations. “We must ensure that girls who are baalot teshuvah shall not need to serve,” said MK Moti Yogev.

MK Nissan Slomiansky asked to change the composition of the committee: “I request that the committee have three religious representatives. A representative of the Chief Rabbinate, as well as one who served as a military chaplain, and another religious person.”

At the end of the discussion, the regulations were approved as written by the committee, with just a few slight changes, by a majority of six to two opponents. Knesset members from the coalition and the opposition supported the regulations. The representative of Jewish Home abstained, and the chareidi representatives objected.

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