Israel’s high court tosses Tal Law
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Israel’s high court tosses Tal Law

Lack of yeshivah exemptions could topple Netanyahu coalition

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Young Israelis demonstrating outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on Jan. 29 in protest of the Tal Law, which exempts yeshivah students from army service. Israel’s Supreme Court this week threw out the law as unconstitutional. Kobi Gideon/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM ““ In a move that could bring down the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 this week that the so-called Tal Law, which allows yeshivah students to delay their military service, is unconstitutional. The court issued its ruling on Tuesday evening. The law is named for retired Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal. It was enacted in 2002, and allows full-time yeshivah students to delay their army service until age 23. At that time, students either can continue to study full time, or perform a shortened army service or a year of national service. Afterward, they may choose to join the workforce.

Last month, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu delayed a Cabinet vote on extending the law, which is set to expire in August. Ehud Barak, who was prime minister in 2002 and is now defense minister, welcomed Tuesday night’s verdict. He is on record as wanting to see the Tal Law replaced by a fairer system.

“The Tal Law has failed,” said Yehuda Ben Meir of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It has not been able to wean the community off the idea of not serving and not working. There is now a third generation [of charedim] that believes this is the way they should live.”

Until the Tal Law, charedim were theoretically eligible to be drafted unless they were full-time Torah students. Opposition to joining the army meant that tens of thousands of young men were staying full time in yeshivah just to avoid army service. Theoretically, the men were subject to the draft if they left the yeshivah before age 40, but practically they could leave the yeshivah after turning 30.

The Tal Law was intended to get the students out of the yeshivot, into the army briefly, and then into the workforce, solving a problematic cycle.

It did not turn out as its proponents hoped. Only a small number of charedi joined the army, although the numbers have been increasing slightly. According to figures from Tzahal (Israel Defense Forces, or IDF), 1,282 charedi men enlisted in the army in 2011, up from 898 in 2010, and 729 in 2011. Most of them served in special male charedi units, where the kashrut standards are higher, and there is no mixing with women.

The vast majority of charedi men have stayed in the yeshivah, however, and their rabbis continue to discourage serving in the army. The opposition is largely ideological. Charedi leaders worry that the army will open up a path to lax religious observance. Some charedi sects are anti-Zionist, and those that support the state believe that Torah study is a legitimate alternative way of contributing to Israel’s security by sustaining the state spiritually.

“The world continues to exist because of their merit, as the Prophet Jeremiah stated,” said Member of Knesset Moshe Gafni of the charedi United Torah Judaism Party.

Resentment against the charedi army exemptions from Israelis who do serve in the army – both secular and Modern Orthodox – was growing even before this week’s court ruling.

“Social justice begins with equally sharing the national burden and army service,” opposition leader Tzipi Livni told reporters recently. “This is a battle for everyone who believes in Zionism and who wants to live in this country.”

The fight against the law is being spearheaded by the same group of Israelis who were behind last summer’s protests against the cost of living in Israel. They are working middle-class Israelis who serve in the army and find it difficult to make ends meet. They believe they are shouldering an unfair amount of the national burden both in paying taxes and in army service. They say they feel like “friars,” the Israeli term for suckers, something to which Israelis have an inborn aversion.

A group of these Israelis even formed a “sucker’s encampment” to protest the Tal Law. “We want the government to legislate a law that requires mandatory service, army or civilian, from everyone – Jews, Arabs, religious, and secular,” activist Boaz Nol told reporters.

The Tal Law ruling poses a threat to Netanyahu’s ruling coalition with charedi ministers threatening to leave if a new law along the lines of the current one is not put on the books quickly. The Sephardic charedi Shas Party, for example, was on record as ready to bolt the government if the Tal Law was not extended. It is no less likely to carry out such a threat if a new law to its liking is not passed soon.

Regardless of what happens, it seems unlikely that the charedi community will join the army in large numbers anytime soon.

“The government didn’t correctly estimate the cultural gap between the charedim and the mere idea of military service,” said Zeev Lerer, a professor on gender and organization at Tel Aviv University. “The Tal Law failed and it will continue to fail. It will take a long and deep revolution to incorporate the idea of military service.”

Even if charedim did decide to join the army en masse, it is not clear that the army is prepared to utilize them. On one hand, there is a growing manpower shortage. At the same time, the army has to make special accommodations for the charedi, such as organizing all-male units and providing glatt kosher food.

“It really is more of a symbolic issue,” Lerer said. “As the army has become more dependent on women serving, often in more combat roles, I don’t see how they can absorb the charedim. It would mean a complete change in the identity of the army.”

Some analysts say that if the government decides that it is important enough for the state, charedim evenutally could be integrated into the army.

“You would have a tremendous social crisis, and many of the rabbis would tell their students to go to prison rather than serve in the army,” said Ben Meir. “But they don’t really want to go to prison. It can be done, perhaps. But not with this government and this coalition.”

JTA Wire Service

This article contains reporting by Linda Gradstein and others.

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