All the documents are in Hebrew
The issue of army service by ultra-orthodox yeshiva students is a focus of public discussion in Israel. The Israel State Archives again presents here four documents from the personal collection of Israel's first chief rabbi, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, which shed light on how the arrangement allowing these students to postpone military service came about.
The first two documents show that in fact, the arrangement giving exemption to yeshiva students, and the controversy on who would be included and what sanctions, if any, would be used against those evading service, began even before the establishment of the state in May 1948.
Two documents from the winter and spring of 1948 contain correspondence with the Recruitment Center for Service to the Nation, which organized recruitment before the IDF was established. During this period the struggle with the Arab community and the imminent establishment of the state demanded mobilization of all possible resources in the Jewish community. In February 1948 the Jerusalem branch of the Recruitment Centre wrote to the heads of several yeshivas who had requested postponement of their students' military service, that a three month postponement would be given to full time students who have no other occupation (Torato omanuto). Other students would serve like any other citizen. (Document No. 2)
Some two months later Rabbi Herzog sent a strong protest to the heads of the Centre against their plan to impose sanctions withholding food supplies to yeshiva students in Jerusalem who evaded military service during the siege of the city, and threatened to make a public attack on these drastic measures against the "surviving remnant" of the Torah scholars in Jerusalem.(Document No. 3)
The controversy did not die down, and in May 1950, Dr. Yosef Burg, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset (Israel's parliament) and a member of the religious Zionist "HaPoel HaMizrachi" party, wrote to Rabbi Herzog expressing his reservations about postponing military service for yeshiva students, (which in fact meant exemption), although he understood why some support it. Dr. Burg warned that recently some young men had been entering yeshiva solely in order to evade serving in the IDF, which was giving yeshiva study a bad name. He asked Rabbi Herzog to take measures to prevent this practice. (Document No. 4)
Over the years the number of students receiving exemption from military service rose and reached thousands of students every year. In 1958 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion considered reducing the scale of the postponement, which in fact gave most of the yeshiva students complete exemption. The prime minister's plan aroused fears among leaders of the ultra-Orthodox and religious communities, including Rabbi Herzog, that it would lead to abolition of the arrangement and conscription of yeshiva students by force. Rabbi Herzog wrote to Ben-Gurion of his concern, claiming that "they, too [the yeshiva students], are enlisted and safeguard Israel's religion and heritage…..and it is due to them that we have arrived where we are today".
In his answer, Ben-Gurion explained his reasons for changing the existing arrangement, citing both security and moral considerations: "This is, first and foremost, a great moral issue: whether it is fitting that the son of one mother is killed in defence of the homeland, and another mother's son sits in his room and studies in safety, while most of the young people of Israel are risking their lives". He added: "I cannot, under any circumstances, agree with your words, that 'it is due to the yeshiva students that we have arrived at where we are today'. They did not build this country, nor did they risk their lives for its independence (although some of them did so), and they have no special rights that other Jews do not have". (Document No. 1)