Nothing infuriates average Israelis more than the exemption most haredi men get from military service. While other high school graduates spend several years in the IDF, often endangering themselves for Israel’s security, most similarly aged haredi young people continue their lives uninterrupted.
This arrangement is based on an understanding reached during Israel’s early years between David Ben-Gurion, our first prime minister, and the heads of leading haredi yeshivas. It allowed yeshiva students to defer military service until concluding their studies, essentially exempting them from service.
The haredi rationale is that while soldiers might fight and die for the country, yeshiva students are the Jewish nation’s true torchbearers. Throughout history, it’s only because of them that Judaism has survived, and since history is cyclical and there’s no guarantee Israel will continue to exist, they alone ensure that Judaism will outlive Zionism.
This thinking doesn’t sit well with non-haredi Israelis. They view haredim as freeloaders. They not only refuse to contribute to state security, but their way of life makes them welfare cases. They don’t work, have countless children and live off the state’s coffers.
Over the years, the country’s leadership, whether left or right, has avoided changing the status quo regarding haredi enlistment in the IDF, recognizing the issue as a political hot potato. The only changes made were forced upon governments by the courts.
The most significant legal battle on the matter took place more than a decade ago, as it became clear the number of yeshiva students receiving deferments was skyrocketing. When Ben-Gurion agreed to deferments, military service was delayed for no more than a few hundred students. In 1999, almost 4,000 yeshiva students received delays, roughly nine per cent of all potential enlistees for that year, bringing the total number of students with deferments to more than 30,000.
Moreover, the deferment system had negative socio-economic ramifications for the haredi community. It kept many in yeshivas and out of the workforce, even after exhausting their Torah studies, because they were neither willing nor able to join the IDF at a later stage in life. Instead, they lingered in yeshivas and kept getting government handouts.
Based on the numbers and the arrangement’s societal effects, Israel’s Supreme Court found the situation to be no longer acceptable. Simply stated, the principle of equality requiring all able-bodied persons to participate in Israel’s security outweighed the freedom of religion claimed by haredim. As such, the court found the deferment system no longer reasonable and, therefore, illegal.
However, the court understood it could not annul the existing arrangement immediately. Instead, it gave the government and Knesset a year to incorporate haredim into the military.
As is often the case, a committee was established, headed by retired Supreme Court Justice Zvi Tal. In April 2000, it produced a voluminous report that led to what is known in Israel as the Tal Law. It did not do away with yeshiva students’ right to continue studying. Rather, it created a year-long window of opportunity for 22-year-olds, allowing those who stopped studying to choose to enlist into the IDF for a shortened term of service or to return to yeshiva.
The law also created a civilian service as an alternative to the military. Anyone serving for a year in this service (in a variety of needed positions) would get a permanent exemption from military service.
Acting on the Tal committee’s recommendations, the law’s validity was limited to five years, requiring the Knesset to re-evaluate it periodically. Although challenged in the courts in 2007, the law was extended for another five years. It’s scheduled to end in this coming July.
During the past decade, the law has only been partially successful in integrating more haredim into the IDF and Israeli society in general. While several thousand have joined the army or civilian service during that decade, in 2010 alone, more than 5,000 new yeshiva students received deferments and their total numbers reached 60,000.
With reserve soldiers already protesting the Tal Law’s extension, and with the issue threatening to dismantle his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed a government debate on it, choosing instead to send it to the Knesset and announcing there would be amendments to the law before July.
With stats showing 28 per cent of Jewish first-graders enrolled this year in haredi schools, someone had better start being more creative. There’s no time to waste.