Since the “Tal Law” expired in August, the cabinet has been scrambling to reach a palatable compromise on how haredi men can provide service to the state. A step in the right direction was made on Sunday when the government approved a proposal to allow 1,300 ultra- Orthodox yeshiva students to enlist in civilian programs.
Under the Tal Law, which was first approved in 2002 and was renewed in 2007, full-time yeshiva students could decide at age 22 whether to participate in a state-run civilian service program alongside a paying job, or a 16- month military stint and subsequent service in the IDF reserves.
In practice, the law made it possible for haredim to indefinitely postpone service in favor of continuing their religious studies. The upside was that each year, some yeshiva students would elect to sign up for the civilian service program, which included working in hospitals, with youth at risk and in other social welfare positions.
The law’s expiration has meant they can no longer join these programs, as there has been a recruitment freeze, or legally defer their military service. Haredi men have instead been in limbo, and the programs have seen the number of their participants fall from 2,026 civilian personnel before the law expired to 1,450 today.
The government’s decision on Sunday to allow yeshiva students to once again enlist in the programs is a double-edged sword. It means the majority can continue avoiding military service, but it also means a successful program will be bolstered, and the haredi leadership and “equality in service” voices can be appeased by this temporary compromise.
Not so. Immediately after Sunday’s decision, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid filed a petition with the High Court of Justice to block the decision. Standing outside the courthouse, Lapid accused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of showing contempt for the High Court, which struck down the Tal Law in February, arguing that it violated the principal of equality. Lapid also charged that Sunday’s decision allows the haredi parties to disregard the rule of law and seize this moment before the national election to extend their constituents’ draft evasion.
“It cannot be that the State of Israel distinguishes between blood [of haredim] and blood [of others],” he said.
Perhaps haredi parties were in a hurry to pass a replacement law because there is a chance that they will not be a part of the next government. Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin hinted last week that a coalition without United Torah Judaism and Shas was a possible scenario.
Netanyahu’s decision to allow 1,300 ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in civilian programs might very well have been a political maneuver designed to placate all sides before the election.
Yet, it still managed to anger some haredi leaders.
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the most senior rabbi in the haredi world, was quoted in an article in Yated Ne’eman as warning his adherents against “this severe and dangerous phenomenon, whose only purpose is to undermine the foundations of our existence and is against the very essence and purpose of a yeshiva student which is to dedicate his life to Torah study.”
While Lapid and his petitioners are correct in principle, the government’s decision to bolster the civilian service program is a positive move.
According to the director of the program, Sar-Shalom Gerbi, 85 percent of its graduates have integrated into the work force – a figure that would probably shock secular society, which largely views haredim as freeloaders.
In addition, a civilian service program would assuredly be part of any future legal framework, so strengthening it now is forward-thinking on the government’s part.
But Sunday’s decision is not sufficient. After the January 22 election, the next government must make it a priority to create a new legal framework for haredi enlistment that will broaden their participation both in the IDF and in civilian service. It must not put this issue on the backburner; military exemptions for some undermine Israeli democracy and are wholly unjust. It is historically unprecedented for so many yeshiva students to study full-time and receive state approval to avoid their obligations as citizens.
In the same breath, Yesh Atid and other petitioners must not dismiss Shteinman’s fears regarding his community’s preservation, however exaggerated they are. What is needed is a more comprehensive approach that will be balance the unique needs of the haredi community with the state’s requirement of shared service for all.