When I went to inquire about my customs exemption for new Olim, on the grounds that my rights had not yet run out since I was a student, I was informed that “Yeshivah students are not students.” I would not accept this absurd statement and fought a successful battle to have the regulations changed.
Although all this occurred whilst I was in the Memshal, it was in no way directly connected with Hebron. This very same battle could have occurred were I to have been studying in a Yeshivah elsewhere in Israel. I am therefore including it as an Appendix to this book. I feel that this is a chapter that should be recorded in the interest of the fights that go on to this very day in Israel to grant Yeshivah student the same rights as other students.
It was soon after Pesach 1970, that we decided that we needed a new refrigerator and washing machine. The customs dues on these items was high, and there was an exemption for new immigrants, with extensions in the period for students at an “Institute of higher learning.” The official regulation added “An ‘Institute of higher learning’ for this purpose, is an institute which grants, after completion of study, an academic degree....”
When I tried to utilise this regulation, I encountered problems, which did not come as a surprise to me. I had had the feeling that the wording was such that it would exclude Yeshivah students! I therefore went to speak to S. Dror, the official responsible for personal imports at the Customs. At the meeting I argued that “Semichah” was the “academic degree” awarded by a Yeshivah and that the Ministry of Education recognised it as a B.A. degree. Dror asked me to bring such a letter from the Ministry of Education.
I found that getting such a letter from an official of the Ministry of Education was not simple. Their clerks would give it to me verbally but when I asked for it in writing they shuddered. “It’s an internal regulation,” they said. “Let me have a photocopy,” I requested. Again a refusal.
I went into Yeshivat Mercaz Harav and told them the problem and asked their advice. One said that I should ask the secretary of “Mossad Harav Kook” an organisation who utilised this Ministry of Education regulation, to give me a letter that such a recognition of Semichah exists. Understandably, the secretary there said she had no power to do so and that only the Ministry of Education could give such a letter.
Someone then recommended that I should ask Rabbi Dr. Yaacov Ross who was an inspector at the Ministry of Education. I had met Rabbi Ross when he had been Principal of Jews College in London, although I don’t think that he remembered me. I thus went again to the Ministry of Education and explained to him the problem. Unlike all the other officials, he immediately agreed to give me such a letter and I should come back a few days later to collect it, which I did.
I then had another meeting with the Dror and showed him this letter. He agreed to consult with the legal adviser and that that I should write him a letter with my request for customs exemption enclosing Dr. Ross’ letter. In reply to my letter, he wrote that it was only the “equivalent” of a degree and not the degree itself. On receiving his letter, I had a further meeting with him, at which he told me that he cannot go against his legal adviser in the definition of a “Institute of higher learning.” I then tried to argue, but without success, that the regulation did not say a “University degree” but an “academic degree” and that is what Semichah was. (I should also mention that at a meeting I had with the “Va’ad Hayeshivot,” they likewise held that Semichah was an academic degree.)
I saw that this approach was not getting me anywhere and so I decided on sending letters to the newspapers and the religious Members of the Knesset. I wrote:
“New Olim are granted customs concessions for a specified period of time when purchasing goods, and such periods are extended for Olim who start to study at an institute of higher learning. However, the Management of the Customs and Excise Office have informed me that the definition of an ‘Institute of higher learning’ in the Customs Regulations does not include Yeshivot. Such discrimination against Yeshivot is very difficult to understand and is made far more serious by the fact that a large number of the student Olim study in Yeshivot.
“Perhaps the Minister of Finance can prevent this discrimination in the future by undertaking to ensure that Yeshivah students receive the same customs concessions as students at other institutions.”
A number of newspapers published my letter and some sent it to the Ministry of Finance for their comments. In their fairly long rambling reply, they spoke of the “impossibility of including Yeshivot” within the framework they themselves had set up. Surely the whole point of my letter was to state that their definition was discriminatory and therefore needed to be changed!
The Ministry of Absorption‘s Yeshivah Department also obviously had a positive interest to resolve this problem and I met with their Director, Yonatan Ben-Ari to put him in the picture and he promised to look into the problem. A few weeks later he wrote to me saying that this matter was the business of the Customs.
Also during this period, I had several meetings at the Ministry of Religious Affairs with Rabbi Klein of their Yeshivah department and the Ministry’s legal adviser. The latter admitted that an “academic degree” was a university degree and that I should ask the customs why their regulations were unclear and they should have specifically written that this exemption does not apply to Yeshivah students. I asked him whether there was a legal definition of a Yeshivah, or could any few people learning together call themselves a Yeshivah. He replied that there was a legal definition.
At my final meeting with this legal adviser, he said that he would write to Zerach Wahaftig, the Minister of Religious Affairs suggesting an addition to the Customs’ definition of “Institute of Higher Learning” in order to incorporate Yeshivot. That very day, Wahaftig wrote to the Minister of Finance pointing out that there was no room for discrimination against Olim who were Yeshivah students, especially as they represented an important segment of the potential Aliyah from the West. To solve the problem, he proposed an amendment to the Customs regulation. This letter to the Finance Minister was either as a result of a letter I had written to Wahaftig about a month earlier, or by the legal adviser contacting him immediately, or a combination of both. Which of these three alternatives, I don’t know.
Meanwhile other Knesset members were also acting on this question. Zevulun Hammer submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister of Finance. He asked whether the information on this non-exemption of customs dues for Yeshivah students was correct? Why was there this difference between them and other students? What does the Minister intend doing to eliminate this difference? I never received a copy of the answers given to these questions. I do know from a person who worked in the Finance Ministry, that the Minister’s answer got lost in their office and there was a “panic” to find it.
In addition, about that time, there was a debate in the Knesset on the Ministry of Absorption and in the course of it the Agudat Yisrael Member of Knesset, Menachem Porush, read out my letter in its entirety. Following this he added, “It is difficult for me to understand the discrimination against Yeshivah students and the matter is even more severe, since a large number of student new Olim learn in Yeshivot. I hope that the Minister of Finance will cancel this discrimination and that Yeshivah students will receive the same exemption from customs duty as students in other organisations.” Incidentally, I learned about his speech in the Knesset when I went soon after to visit Yeshivat Hanegev and one of the students there showed me an Agudah paper with the text of his speech.
Four months passed, yet there was no response by the Finance Ministry to Wahaftig’s letter. A reminder was thus sent. This at last produced a response and on 21 December 1970, a senior official of the Customs officially informed the necessary parties of the amended regulations to include Yeshivah students. A few weeks later Zevulun Hammer sent me a handwritten letter, informing me of this change, summarising the new regulation and adding that he understands that this answers the problem.
Although this change came to late for me to utilise, it meant that other Yeshivah students would get the benefit of the new regulations, and for this alone, I felt that all my efforts had been worthwhile.