Editorial: A Tal Order

The Tal Law is dead. This is not only a good thing, but indeed essential to the future viability of an indivisible Israel.

In a 6-3 decision last week, the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the 2002 law that allowed full-time yeshiva students to defer military service. Striking down the law has created a gray area on an issue that has caused significant social discord and has tremendous implications for the nation.

The controversy has its underpinnings in a promise David Ben-Gurion made over 60 years ago to exempt 400 Haredi Jews from military service. The limitation on the number was lifted during the tenure of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and the exemption grew to cover tens of thousands of yeshiva students who, along with their rabbis, claimed that military service would disrupt their religious education and observance.

The Tal Law was an effort by the government of Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2002 to address the issue of vastly multiplied exemptions. The law, named after a retired justice, would defer army service until 23, at which point a student would continue full-time study, serve 16 months in the army, or devote a year to national service.

But it didn’t really work as planned. By the time students hit age 23, many already were married with children and thus exempt by virtue of a different life station. As Linda Gradstein pointed out in a recent JTA article on the subject, quoting Yehuda Ben Meir of Tel Aviv University: “The Tal Law has failed..It has not been able to wean the community off the idea of not serving and not working. There is now a third generation that believes this is the way they should live.”

The problem is disturbing in and of itself, but the overall implications for the State of Israel are causing immense social unrest. First, there is an accurate perception that different rules apply to one segment of the Jewish population, and that distinction is an unfair one. Second, the population that is exempt from service is the subset of Jewish Israel with the highest birth rate, largest families and with high poverty levels by virtue of the number of men whose full-time occupation is Torah study. Moreover, that study historically has failed to consistently provide the type of math, science and other subjects that are necessary to the cultivation of secular job skills. This dynamic has caused significant economic stress to be imposed upon the whole of Israeli society.

Third, the exemption issue is now painted against a backdrop of gender politics, with a large swath of the Israeli population extremely unhappy with segregation practices on streets, busses and other venues practiced by Haredi. Moreover, a number of violent and abusive episodes that have resulted from a small and out-of-control, albeit unrepresentative, portion of the Haredi population have exacerbated the simmering social frustration.

Overall, the unrest that has evolved is the pitting of a fairly progressive Jewish majority, that honors egalitarian principles and is conscripted into service at a young age in the name of sovereign defense, versus a culture that chooses to live according to different social mores, eschews many aspects of contemporary society, and to a great extent denies the need for the shared sacrifice of public service.

Even the more conservative elements of the parliamentary leadership know that the time has come for something more progressive to replace the practice of yeshiva exemptions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has acknowledged the Tal Law cannot be extended, despite the objections and political threats made by several of the religious parties within the Knesset ruling coalition.

The solutions are not readily apparent, though. Though the Tal Law is now deemed unconstitutional, determining the next steps may be challenging. The cost of truly bringing all age-appropriate yeshiva students into the army, or into some form of alternate public service, is quite high, especially at a time when the governmental coffers are not overflowing. So while there is little chance that the long-term solution will resemble the Tal Law or what preceded it, there may be a time of stress as leaders cope with how to balance an egalitarian and constitutionally accepted solution with a pragmatic, financially viable one.

Our view is, the sooner that a real solution is adopted that shows a common purpose amongst all Israelis of military age, the sooner the country will advance toward a culture of mutual support and understanding. We are brokenhearted from afar that the defense and security of the State of Israel require the commitment of its youngsters to serve, but we believe that exempting a growing swath by virtue of their particular religious beliefs is detrimental to the sustenance of a Jewish state. We oppose any extension of the Tal Law, and we support the Knesset finding a realistic and financially sustainable model of national service for all at the earliest possible date.