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Toward a Saner Policy on Free Speech

Kudos to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for yesterday’s decision to oust a yeshiva from the hesder program, which combines Torah study with army service, thereby laying down an important principle: the right to say what you please does not include the right to do so on the government’s dime.

The Har Bracha Yeshiva was expelled because its head, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, repeatedly urged his soldier-students to disobey orders to evacuate settlements. Were Melamed a private individual, this would have been unexceptionable. I vehemently oppose such disobedience, because it would undermine the army, on which Israel’s survival depends. But the other side has serious arguments as well — from the importance of obeying one’s conscience to the value of civil disobedience as a way of protesting problematic policies. Hence in principle, Melamed’s position is a legitimate part of the ongoing political debate.

But it ought to be clear that you cannot urge your soldier-students to disobey orders while accepting NIS 700,000 a year — 20 percent of your budget — from the very army you are telling them to disobey. The army need not and should not be funding activities aimed at undermining its ability to function.

Unfortunately, Barak’s decision did not fully establish this principle, as one other yeshiva whose head advocates disobedience remains in the hesder (which includes 61 yeshivas altogether). Indeed, Barak probably wouldn’t have expelled Har Bracha had Melamed not publicly humiliated him by refusing even to meet with him to discuss the issue.

Still, this is the first time a yeshiva has ever been removed from the program. And therefore it sets an important precedent.

What is necessary now is to expand this precedent to other areas of Israeli life. For instance, while it’s legitimate in principle for a professor to advocate boycotting Israel, it is not legitimate to do so while accepting a salary from the very university — and often, the very state — you are asking your overseas colleagues to boycott. How private institutions handle this issue is their business, but most Israeli colleges and universities are state funded. And the state should not be underwriting the paychecks of those who are soliciting others to boycott it.

Similarly, while it’s legitimate for ultra-Orthodox parents to educate their children according to their own beliefs, the state need not and should not finance a curriculum it deems inimical to its long-term health — because that curriculum both preaches eschewing work and army service in favor of full-time Torah study and omits secular subjects necessary to the modern workplace, such as English and math. Yet currently, the state covers up to 75 percent of these schools’ budgets.

For too long, Israel has acted as if the right to free speech includes the right to government financing for your views. Barak’s decision is a first step toward a more rational policy under which people may still say what they please, but the state will no longer finance views it deems inimical. Its importance thus goes far beyond a single yeshiva.



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