With the broadest unity government in 28 years, Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu will now have more maneuverability to tackle domestic and foreign
While political analysts say that the controversy over the
impending eviction of the Ulpana neighborhood built on disputed land in the West
Bank settlement of Beit El will likely be the new unity government’s first test,
the main domestic issue requiring attention at this point is the Tal
In 1948, then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to the draft
exemption of 400 yeshiva students.
Since then, the country’s population
has expanded rapidly, and with it, the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) sector. This
translates into thousands of yeshiva students who, each year, receive an
exemption from the army, leaving the rest of the country with the responsibility
to defend its borders.
According to the Hiddush website, in the past two
years there has been an increase of about 10 percent in the number of yeshiva
students. The total number of students in yeshivot has increased from 103,000 in
2010, and now stands at 114,000.
The Hiddush website quotes Rabbi Haim
Amsalem, and founder of Am Shalem, who said, “The select few who kill themselves
truly studying Torah are the torchbearers of the Jewish People and should be
given thorough and serious study without interruption. For everyone else, we
must find the right formula to integrate them into sharing civic burdens and
participating in the workforce. This is the desire of most Israelis and a large
part of the ultra- Orthodox population.”
After years of resentment on the
part of those who serve in the IDF, and their subsequent petitions to the High
Court of Justice to look into the legality of automatic exemption of haredim,
the court ruled that the defense minister does not have authority to determine
the extent of exemptions.
In response to the court’s ruling, Defense
Minister Ehud Barak created a committee in 1999 led by former Supreme Court
justice Tzvi Tal to examine the issue.
Based on the committee’s findings,
the Tal Law was passed in 2002 as a temporary law which needs to be renewed
every five years. The bill enables a continuation of the exemptions to yeshiva
students subject to the detailed conditions within the bill.
the law, at the age of 22, yeshiva students are provided with a “decision year”
and can choose between one-year civilian service alongside a paying job or a
shortened 16-month military service and future service in the reserves as an
alternative to continuing to study.
A number of motions against the law
were filed with the High Court of Justice claiming it violates the principle of
In 2005, the state admitted in a response to a Supreme Court
petition that the Tal Law had failed to change enlistment arrangements for
haredim, as only a few dozen had enlisted to the army as a result of it. The law
was extended in 2007 by another five years. In February, the High Court of
Justice ruled that the law is unconstitutional. In an essay on this
issue, Rabbi Alfred Cohen asks, “can a class of people legitimately claim that,
as a group, they are serving different, equally vital, need for the salvation of
the community? On these grounds, should they be exempted from military duty in
order to fulfill their unique role in national security?”
Cohen cites a Talmud
passage in Tractate Yoma that says, “Possibly the greatest sin in Judaism is
hillul Hashem – desecration of the Name, which includes anything which lessens
the respect and devotion of people for God and His Torah. Every sin can be
forgiven, other than this one.”
In reference to a talmudic text that is
often cited as evidence that maintaining the spiritual welfare of the nation is
more important than maintaining its physical security, Cohen writes, “the
persistent lack of clarity in resolving the issue makes it apparent that, the
importance of learning Torah notwithstanding, it cannot be the only
consideration in determining normative Jewish practice. Our rabbis have
introduced many other factors which at times may mitigate the primacy of the
mitzvah of learning Torah.”
Similarly, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein,
referring to the statement by Maimonides that only a man who has divested
himself of all worldly concerns could avoid the draft, asks, “can anyone
confront a mirror and tell himself he ought not to go to the army because he is
‘kodesh kedoshim,’ sanctum sanctorum, in the Rambam’s terms?... Those who would
single themselves out for saintliness should examine their credentials by the
THE MAIN plans to replace the Tal Law are those
presented by the Likud, Kadima, Israel Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Independence
Kadima’s alternative bill would require mandatory service for
all within five years, allowing 1,000 students an exemption from
The Likud wants to reverse allowing an exemption for 1,000 students. Instead, it wants to present a minimum number for
those in service, which will be increased each year.
bill would require all 18- year-olds, including Arabs and Jews, to enlist in the
IDF or perform civilian service. The proposal allows for 1,000 yeshiva students
and the same number of athletes and artists to receive an
Those who do not serve would not be allowed to receive grants
or payments from the government. The bill states, “This law proposal prevents
draft dodging and creates a situation in which those who cannot serve in the IDF
can serve instead in the civilian or national service. The idea that Torah study
somehow forbids seeking employment or justifies exemption from IDF service is
incompatible with the Jewish faith.”
The bill goes on to quote Maimonides
and uses him as an example of someone who combined work with Torah
According to Yesh Atid, anyone who does not perform IDF or
civilian service will not receive government stipends, and the IDF would take
first pick on whom to draft with the remainder doing national service for two
years. The program would come into effect after a five-year intermediate period
during which haredi men would be exempt from army service but would be able to
participate legally in the workforce.
The Independence bill calls for the
IDF to decide which 18-year-olds should serve in the military. Anyone not
recruited by the army would be required to perform one year of civilian
The “Camp Sucker” protest movement called Yesh Atid party leader
Yair Lapid’s plan for drafting haredim into the army and national service a
“catastrophe.” A movement spokesperson said the program would sabotage efforts
to pass a law in the current Knesset session to apply equal standards and rules
to all Israelis as promised by Netanyahu.
Specifically, the movement said
it objects to Lapid’s idea of delaying the enforcement of equal standards for
AND THERE are problems with all of these recommendations.
None of them deal with draft evasion by the secular. Today, a large number of
secular youth, especially from elite Tel Aviv circles, do not serve in the
Studies have shown that at least 20 percent and up to 30% of
secular men and women avoid the draft each year.
They also do not specify
how the army can properly conscript haredim.
In recognizing the need to
select a core group of people who fully devote their time to Torah study, there
needs to be a system of eligibility for exemption.
A plan that allow only
1,000 students an exemption would create intense haredi infighting and mass
corruption. It would, as Jonathan Rosenblum writes in his column, “tear apart
haredi society the way the Cantonist decrees tore apart Eastern European
communities in the late 19th century.”
There needs to be a nationwide
exam that all yeshiva students would be required to take. The top percentile
would be exempt from army service and the rest would be required to serve either
in the army or in parallel programs such as a civilian force, police force or
National Service. Firefighting, prisons services, soup kitchens, hospitals and
old-age homes are also all viable possibilities.
The haredim are
different from the rest of Israeli society – or any society for that matter;
haredim in America consider holding a job as valuable, while in Israel it is not
as important, if at all.
Much of Israeli society remains ignorant of
haredi concerns and some of those concerns can be considered legitimate, but
whether those concerns would be dealt with in a proper manner is
It is also possible that some haredim might view these efforts
as so damaging to their lifestyle and beliefs that they may just decide to pick
up and leave the country.
The state cannot take an entire group of
haredim, raised and imbued with values wholly different than ones the state
embodies, and expect them to integrate easily into army life. The army is
not sufficiently set up to deal with the sensitivities involved.
recruits would require a completely different standard and they would require
commanders and officers capable of understanding their background, upbringing
and perception of society and the world as a whole.
Those who believe
that haredi yeshiva students can be thrown into the existing military mold are
delusional. Reality demands that a true solution be found – one that respects
the values haredi Jews believe in.
If it is true that the army is meant
to serve as a vehicle through which all members of society share the national
burden of securing the state, there is no reason not to accommodate those who
are in fact taking part in this effort.
While haredim will need to make
some compromises, it is the army that needs to change – not the haredi
If the state wants haredim to join the national effort, a
mechanism must be put in place by which their religious standards are not overly
WHILE THE haredim protest strongly against any type of
service, it can nonetheless be assumed that there are numerous individuals and
families who would benefit greatly from the system. Without doubt, many
young men and women are eager to undergo the army experience or national
service, but are prevented from doing so by their society.
In the haredi
community there are few goals and objectives. Men are expected to study and gain
knowledge. Women are expected to have children and raise the family.
self-fulfillment and satisfaction that haredi men and women can receive from
army or national service and a job is barely, if at all, considered.
emphasize this point, a young haredi man I interviewed a few months ago
underwent a life change that he considers incredible.
A. is 30 years old,
one of 10 siblings (his wife is one of 12) with three children. He was raised to
believe that army service was a terrible thing and so he did what everyone else
in his community was expected to do – get an exemption.
This worked out
fine until at some point he forgot to go the the recruitment office and, to make
a long story short, he was drafted against his will into the IDF.
his wife were in shock that such a terrible set of circumstances could befall
them. They decided to tell no one except her sister and mother. They told their
children he was studying in a yeshiva far away and therefore must leave early
and come home late. To this day his family supposedly does not know he is
serving in the army.
Conscious of the stigma in his community against
serving in the army and fearing discovery of his secret, A. leaves his house
each morning wearing a hat and jacket, his uniform hidden away in a bag, and
changes only when he reaches the base. He practices the reverse when he returns
home, so that no one will see him in uniform.
At first he found the
experience extremely difficult, but eventually he was offered a role on his base
which allowed him the opportunity to teach others and hold a responsible
position. In yeshiva he was one in a crowd. On base, he felt he was
making a difference and contributing to society.
In addition, the army
realized he and his wife are in dire financial circumstances, and they took
measures to alleviate their financial burden. The army brought them home
furnishings and each week provides him with food to take home to his
What he and his wife thought to be the worst thing that could
happen to them actually turned out to be extraordinarily positive.
unfortunate that this man’s life improved for the better, yet he must hide it
from his friends and relatives out of fear of what they might think of
How unfortunate that if the community discovers his secret, it will,
in his words, “ruin his sisters’ chances of finding a good match.”
MAIN issue, then, is breaking the stigma the haredi community attaches to army
service. The existing attitude of rejection must change to that of
Haredi leaders must accept that they are causing a nationwide
“hillul Hashem” (desecration of God’s name), and bring a positive change to a
segment of society that is suffering and cannot sustain itself
The contribution the haredi community can further make to
society is significant and a system should be set in place to facilitate the
absorption of thousands of haredi youth into the draft system whether it is for
IDF or civilian service.
The perfect solution may remain elusive but it
is worth exploring existing options.
There is no longer an alternative
and the current status quo is no longer acceptable.