For the past 65 years, Israel’s leaders have deferred students from sharing the burden of Israel’s defense. How did this situation start and how did secular leaders allow it to persist?
Saving the Remnant
The question of deferring yeshiva students arose long before the founding of the State of Israel. In 1917 when the British captured Eretz Yisroel from the Turks and were interested in enlisting Jews to the armed forces, Rav Avraham Yitzchok Kook, spiritual father of the Zionist Religious movement, wrote an impassioned letter to the Chief Rabbi of England Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz, pleading him to influence the authorities to keep their hands off yeshiva students.
“Our goal is clear and single, to save the Jewish neshomah in this kingdom,” he wrote. “For many reasons this depends upon the survival the few yeshivos. It is clear that if the right of bnei hayeshivah to be exempt from army service is annulled at this point… the yeshivos established with great toil and messirus nefesh will irretrievably collapse, cholilah... The success of the country in its war depends upon talmidei chachomim toiling in Torah. In their merit the war will be won. They help the country more than the fighting troops, etc.” (Igros Harayah, volume 3 page 88)
The question of exempting yeshiva students arose once more before the founding of the State Israel when about 600,000 Jews lived among a sea of Arabs. On 9 March 1948, enlistment was declared obligatory upon every man and woman below the age of 45. Despite a desperate lack of manpower, the Hagana Head of Staff, Yisrael Galili, exempted yeshiva students from conscription by order of David Ben Gurion.
“It has been decided that bnei hayeshivot, according to authorized list, are exempt from army service….” the order read. “This decision is binding for 5708. At the end of the year, the problem will be reexamined.”
In Yerushalayim, rabbonim had rejected a compromise whereby, “Talmidim hayeshivot, like all youngsters in Yerushalayim, will receive self-defense training with the understanding that they will go into action in circumstances of necessity andpikuach nefesh.״
Ben Gurion’s deferment exempted about 400 bochurim comprising about 0.07% of the Jewish population. By 2012, the deferment extended to 48,000 Torah students, 10,000 of them in Zionist Religious yeshivos.
All chareidi rabbonim and many Religious Zionist rabbis supported the deferment of yeshivaleit from army service. In the chareidi camp, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer wrote, “I request the Chief of Staff. to not touch the bnei hayeshivos,” while on the Religious Zionist side Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, a talmid of Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, declared, “Our opinion, daas Torah, is that every ben yeshiva knows his faithful duty is to be one of Hashem’s army and he has no obligation to enlist, to be appointed, or registered for the work of any other unit.” enlistment in order to allow these few to continue learning our holy Torah, which is also a necessity and a glory for our state.”
After conferring with the Chief of the General Staff, Ben Gurion sent a letter sanctioning deferment to Rav Yitzchok Meir Levine, one of Agudas Yisroel’s two Knesset representatives. Ben Gurion hated religious Judaism with a passion and this to the idea was nothing short of a miracle. But unfortunately, the deferment agreement was never anchored in law, leading to trouble in later years.
In January 1950, Ben Gurion recorded his meeting with Gedolei Yisroel who asked him to anchor the deferment in Israeli law.
“A delegation of roshei yeshiva came to me: Rav Meltzer, Rav Tikochinsky, Rav Katz from Petach Tikvah, Rav Sorotzkin, and another youngster [the recently deceased Rav Tenenbaum],” he wrote. “They came to request exemption for bachurei yeshiva from security service. Although I told them from the start that their request was already granted, they stated their case at length. One after the other, they requested that exemption be anchored in law. I explained to them that such a law would not be accepted… They are concerned that most bachurei yeshivot who stop their learning will not return to it. They also turned down my suggestion to train bachurei hayeshivot in their places [of learning], etc.”
When Ben Gurion visited the Chazon Ish in 1952, he asked him, “If you were prime minister and everyone went to yeshiva, who would serve in the army?”
The Chazon Ish answered by relating the story of a person who caught frostbite on a freezing winter’s day.
“Just as well I got frostbite in winter,” the man said. “If it happened in summer, where would I get snow to massage my ears?”
“In similar vein, we only need the army because you have taken the Jewish people from Torah observance,” the Chazon Ish told Ben Gurion.
In a similar story, when Haganah soldiers were doing target practice on Shabbos in the months before 1948, a soldier told the Chazon Ish, “Don’t be afraid; these are shots of our boys.”
To which the Chazon Ish answered, “I am more afraid of the shots of our boys on the holy Shabbos than of the shots of our Arab enemies on a week day.”
This idea is based on the Gemara (Sanhedrin 94b), which says King Chizkiyahu defeated Sancheriv because of the intensive Torah study in his time. Throughout Eretz Yisroel, no boy or girl, man or women, was not expert in the laws of purity and impurity. When Sancheriv besieged Yerushalayim and Shavneh the Sofer wanted KlalYisroelto surrender, Chizkiyah refused. He argued that since the Jews observed, If you walk in My statutes and guard My mitzvos and do them, Hashem would fulfill his promise, I will give peace in the land and you will lie down and not be afraid (Vayikra 26:6-7). Similarly,.
The only early attempt to override Ben Gurion’s ad hoc deferment of bochurim was in 1954, when Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon gave instructions to enlist yeshiva students who had been exempted for four years or more. Prime Minister Moshe Sharret instructed Lavon to cancel his instruction. Ben Gurion wrote Lavon that the agreement to defer bochurim was of his own free will.
“It may help if you know this,” he wrote. “No agreement was ever made between myself and any religious party regarding the deferment of bachurei yeshiva. I did it freely and voluntary… The deferment, contrary to what I saw in one of the papers, was not the result of a coalition agreement.”
“By the way,” he added, “in my opinion, the increase in the number of bachurei yeshiva… requires a change in the deferment process.”
Despite the concluding sentence of his letter, Ben Gurion and his party continued granting deferments even in the years when Agudas Yisroel was absent from the governing coalition between 1952 and 1977. When a special ministerial committee established in 1968 that the number of new exemptions would not pass 800 a year, the rule was ignored even when the deferments increased beyond that after 1976.
Ben Gurion was influenced to allow yeshiva deferments by his friend, Moshe Prager. Reb Moshe was a writer for “Davar” a nonreligious paper, although he was a Gerer chossid. Prager showed Ben Gurion a letter from a leading Nazi that stated, “our war is with the ‘Talmudists’ because it is through them that jews are preserved.” Prager said that by drafting yeshiva boys, you will finish Hitler’s job, Ben Gurion backed down because of this.
Source of Contention
The yeshiva deferment issue was raised many times in the Knesset and became a major source of public contention against the Torah world. But nothing came of it even when Agudas Yisroel was not in the coalition. On the contrary, the deferment terms even improved over the years.
Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin pointed out this
surprising fact in the 1980s when 298 delegates of a Religious Zionist committee resolved that yeshiva students should be obligated to enlist.
“The members of the Mafdal committee have now dared do something that the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion never dared to do, nor all the Defense Ministers who served from then to now inclusively,” Rav Zevin wrote. “Woe to the shame and humiliation.”
One reason the government dragged its feet about enlisting yeshiva students was that the army didn’t want them. Discussing the enlistment issue last year, Shelly Yachimovich, present leader of the Labor party said, “It saddens me that a matter so important and close to the public’s heart has turned into kindling material and fruitless political spins based on no sincere intent. No law, manipulation, or deals will solve the issue. No one, no prime minister or defense minister tried to enlist 18-year-old chareidim going to learn because the IDF doesn’t want the chareidim. I sat on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when chareidi representatives came and wanted to open another Nachal Chareidi base due to demand for enlistment. The Defense Minister said, ‘No, it costs me too much.’”
But some people took legal action. Between 1970-1986, three appeals were made against the exemption in the High Court. All were rejected. In answer to the last appeal Judge Aharon Barak said, “The authority for deferring military service for bachurei yeshiva belongs to the Defense Minister, and it has not been proved that the use of [his] judgment is unreasonable in the circumstances.”
In 1999, however, the courts decided that blanket deferral of yeshiva students was illegal. This led to the creation of the Tal Law that was supposed to lead to significant increase in yeshiva enlistment. In February 2012 the High Court ruled that the Tal Law had failed to achieve its purpose and as a result, Israel is presently in an uproar as various parties try to formulate new enlistment proposals that threaten to irrevocably harm the Torah world.
Source: Shlotno Benizri, Kunterns Toraso Umnaso, 5773