Enshrining Torah study as supreme value causes ‘political crisis’ endangering Knesset coalition

Ultra-Orthodox parties push for bill that would preserve military exemption for Yeshiva students.

By Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

United Torah Judaism (UTJ), Shas and Member of Knesset Betzalel Smotrich from Habayit HaYehudi are pushing hard for a proposed basic law that would enshrine Torah study as a supreme value in the State of Israel in order to protect the right of yeshiva students not to perform military service.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s secular right-wing Yisrael Beyteinu party is threatening to break up the coalition over the bill.

The so-called ‘enlistment bill’ has been placed on the Knesset agenda, but it’s unclear when and if the legislation will be brought up for a vote.

Leading haredi (ultra-Orthodox) lawmaker Moshe Gafni has warned that his UTJ party would condition its support for the state budget on the coalition’s backing of the bill. Just as emphatically, Yisrael Beyteinu chairman Robert Ilatov demanded that the matter be shelved. To back up his statement, Ilatov warned that if the bill came to the floor, the entire five-member Yisraeli Beytienu party would vote against it, including Immigration Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, which would mean resigning from the government.

The coalition is trying its best to put off the crisis, with its chair, David Amsalem, saying that the important matter of ultra-Orthodox enlistment should be coordinated with the defense minister and not be raised as a private member bill. Kulanu party leader and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon seconded that notion, and both coalition stalwarts warned that the haredi parties would be in violation of the coalition agreement if they do not support the all-important budget.

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Hebrew University Political Science Prof. Avrum Diskin told World Israel News (WIN), “I do not see this as the issue that will bring down the coalition. Notice that in the last few days, Gafni has not repeated his threat to vote against the budget if he does not get his way. The budget is the real ‘make or break’ issue of this coalition and everything else can be managed. The name of the game for all parties is to get all that they can before the budget is passed.”

‘Hard to say which side will blink first’

Political pundit Mitchell Barak from Keevoon Strategies told WIN, “The ultra-Orthodox parties are trying to exploit the current weakness of the Prime Minister due to the corruption investigations he is facing. The yeshiva draft issue is very important to them, and they are banking on Yisrael Beyiteinu backing down, like it did over the ‘mini-markets’ bill.  Yisrael Beiteinu is threatening to bring down the government because they do not think the ultra-Orthodox, Likud or any other coalition party for that matter is interested in early elections at this time. It’s hard to say which side will blink first.”

The ‘enlistment’ bill comes after the Supreme Court ruled in September that the current exemption system was discriminatory and instructed the government to pass a new law within a year.

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The wording of the bill states: “Torah study is a foundational value in the heritage of the Jewish people…the State of Israel, as a Jewish state, sees supreme importance in encouraging Torah study and Torah students…will see in those who dedicate themselves to studying Torah for an extended period as having provided substantial service for the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”