Ofer Shelah
Ofer Shelah Yoni Kempinski

The decision Wednesday night by the Knesset's Shaked Committee to approve criminal sanctions on hareidi yeshiva students who refuse to serve in the IDF is the “correction of a historic mistake” made by the state at its inception, when David Ben Gurion exempted hareidi yeshiva students from serving in the IDF, said MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), a member of the Committee.

The law to require hareidi yeshiva students to join the IDF “is not a matter of the government of Israel against the world of Torah. It's the government of Israel telling the hareidi population that you will continue with your way of life, we have no desire to interfere with this,” Shelah told Arutz Sheva in an interview. “But you have to participate in Israeli life, you have to serve in the army and you have to be a part of the workforce.”

The Committee, headed by Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked, is hammering out the last details of the bill that would authoritatively decide for once and for all, MKs hope, what the obligations of 18-year-old Israelis to the state are. The Committee on Wednesday voted to impose criminal sanctions, up to and including jail time, on draft dodgers from the hareidi community. All Yesh Atid members of the Committee, including Shelah, voted to approve the rule.

The approval was extremely important not just for its own sake, said Shelah, but because “it was the main issue that caused the most controversy, which most people said would not pass. But in the end it passed. If not enough of the hareidi population enlists in the army in the next three years there will be conscription for almost everybody,” said Shelah. “With this understanding, we believe people will come.”

Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, agreed with hareidi leaders to grant exemptions to 400 yeshiva students per year, in 1948. By 1968 the number was 800. However, the number grew exponentially over the years, partly as a result of the political alliance between Likud and hareidi parties, which began in 1977. By 2005, there were more than 40,000 yeshiva students who received exemption for Torah study. 

The “original sin,” said Shelah, was Ben Gurion's agreement to the exemptions, which have mushroomed to a point where the situation is unmanageable. “This mistake that was made by the government 65 years ago has to be corrected,” said Shelah. “It has to be rectified, and by adding criminal sanctions to the draft law we have begun doing this.”