Sunday, June 16, 2019

Lehovin: An Insider’s Look at the Bnei Yeshiva Draft Process

Lehovin, parshas Behar 27, Main, p. 9

Menachem Shtauber is a 29-year-old Israeli criminal law attorney in Yerushalayim, where he lives with his wife and three children. After learning in Yeshiva Kol Torah, he began the study of Israeli law, and after serving as an army lawyer, went into private practice, where he specializes in representing both religious and secular individuals experiencing problems related to the military draft. He is widely regarded as the top attorney in the country in this area of the law.

Is there a real problem today of yeshiva bachurim who are in danger of being drafted by the Israeli army?

There are hundreds of such cases in which a bachur has been stripped of his ma’amad ben yeshiva, his exempt status as a yeshiva bachur. I’m not exaggerating – as an attorney, I’m careful to speak with precision. We’re not discussing the talmidim of Rav Shmuel Auerbach or others who don’t cooperate with the military authorities at all. We’re speaking of regular yeshiva boys who went through the registration process but have been denied their exemptions.

For example: A boy comes from a family that has great financial difficulties and during bein hazemanim, he works a bit in order to help his family out, even just for an hour. When that boy comes to the draft office and they ask him if he’s ever worked, if he acknowledges working for an hour bein hazemanim, they tell him, “So you work. You’re not a yeshiva bachur. You will go into the army.”

All these conditions that are used to remove a bachur’s status, such as the prohibition on working even for one hour or traveling overseas for more than seven days, were they enacted in order to ensure there would be enough yeshiva bachurim to fill the yearly quotas that require the drafting of thousands of charedim? 

I can’t say if it’s to fill quotas, but there’s no question that it has been done with a goal of drafting as many bachurim as possible. There is an office for shiluv Charedim, for the integration of charedim in the army, which was set up for this specific purpose. This isn’t something hidden, the army publicizes it. People can debate whether this is good or bad. That’s a separate question. But these are the facts, and you can’t argue with facts. It’s more comfortable, however, for people to bury their heads in the sand and say that all is in order, when in fact it isn’t.

In the past, these conditions on a bachur’s status weren’t scrutinized and enforced anywhere near as exactingly as now. If a boy wanted to fly overseas he did so and they would leave him alone. Now, if a bachur travels overseas and returns mere hours after the seven-day deadline – it’s all over. This is being done in order to increase the numbers of charedim in the army.

I have quite a number of bachurim I’m representing who had their status removed for having volunteered outside of regular yeshiva hours – such as on erev Shabbos or bein hazemanim -- with organizations like Hatzalah or Yedidim (which is like Chaverim in the U.S.). The State would rather they do nothing than that they volunteer for these groups.

Is it true that there are people paid by the army to circulate among bachurim to influence them to enlist?

Yes, of course. I know such individuals personally. I don’t know if they receive money for each bachur they convince to enlist or they receive a salary, but there certainly are such people—charedim in every way -- circulating in the olam hayeshivos. The State is interested in having charedim integrate into society and they use every means at their disposal. 

What is going on currently with the drafting of girls?

I am more involved with cases of bachurim than of girls. But I can tell you that just days ago there was a Supreme Court ruling in a case in which a young woman named Moriah Sheli sought an exemption despite having been late in submitting her tatzhir dat, declaration of religiosity.

The court rejected her petition, and in the opinion, they stated that the fact that the number of religious girls entering the army continues to rise is proof that there is no intrinsic contradiction between a girl being religious and serving in the army. This is a very ominous development, because it undermines the entire basis for religious exemptions.

Ever since a Supreme Court case about three years ago in which a non-religious girl sought an exemption claiming she was religious, the army has begun giving even unquestionably religious girls – including very Charedi ones – a very difficult time. I represent girls who are regularly summoned to the draft office for a ra’ayon dat, an interview to determine their religiosity –something that never occurred in the past. At these interviews, they are bombarded with questions that even you and I might have a difficult time answering under pressure, seated before intimidating army officers. They are questioned about obscure points of Jewish law, such as which brachot to make on various foods and the order of precedence of brachot, or are told to recite tefillot by heart, starting from the middle of a paragraph. There are many girls who lead religious lives but don’t attend Torah shiurim and aren’t familiar with halacha, yet these girls are forced into the army as a result of such interviews.

Can you describe a bit about the experience of being in the army?

I served in the army and I still do milu’im. The moment one enters the army, one’s hashkafa changes, he begins to feel himself a part of Israeli society. A charedi bachur who enters the army will not remain as he was – there’s no one who denies that. He is exposed to different types of people and different cultures, and sometimes he begins to adopt those as his own.

Some claim that there’s no draft crisis because, after all, “no one is ever taken directly from yeshiva into the army,” and they challenge those who claim there is a crisis to find such instances. What is your response?

Perhaps they’re right that bachurim aren’t generally taken physically from yeshiva straight into the army. But the way the process works, once the army removes a bachur’s exemption and he is forced to fight against being drafted, he will indeed end up in the army unless organizations like Ichud Bnei Torah HaSefardim and others can hire attorneys to secure his release.

So, while a bachur may not be dragged physically from his shtender to the army base, being stripped of his exemption means that, barring special intervention, a process has begun that will lead to his being forced into the army. I have represented a number of bachurim who were imprisoned after losing their exempt status and as a result ended up giving in and going into the army.

I have a question for those who say that bachurei yeshiva are not being caught in the draft: Why is it that Degel HaTorah itself has someone named Rav Godenthal, whose entire job is to work on freeing bachurim who have been caught up in the draft process? He is very busy, so obviously there is a major problem in this area. People in America have a very great advantage in that they’re not caught up in the politics here, so they can see the picture of what’s going on here from a detached perspective, unlike people here who are biased by the fact that whole identity is tied into the politics. I’m not politically involved and I’m not connected to one side or another. Although I may wear a black kippah, I don’t see myself as a standard charedi. We need to face the facts: There are problems and we need to deal with them. If someone wants to say, “There are problems, but we don’t have the ability to deal with them,” that’s also a possible response. But what’s not valid is to say there are no problems.

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