Nahal haredi soldier 248 AJ.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The High Court of Justice on Sunday heard five petitions challenging the constitutionality of the Tal Law, which enables yeshiva students to perform truncated military service or a year of public service and then join the work force without being drafted.
Because of the complexity of the issues involved, the petition was heard before a panel of nine justices and a ruling is expected to take several months.
The Tal Law was originally approved in 2002 as a transitional law for five years. Its aim was to pave the way for haredi men to enter the workforce after making some sort of contribution to the state. The underlying assumption was that a certain percentage of haredi men would leave full-time yeshiva study for work, if the threat of being drafted into the army for a lengthy period were removed.
Two years ago, after the High Court had rejected petitions against it, the Knesset extended the law for another five years. Once again, several petitions were filed against it.
"There are two classes of citizens," said 70-year-old attorney Yehuda Ressler, who has been fighting against massive draft exemptions for yeshiva students in court for almost 40 years. "There is discrimination between one person's blood and another's.
"Why doesn't the government conscript haredim from this day forward as it does secular Israelis? It is a cancer in the nation," he said. "We can't live with this."
In the decision to reject the earlier petitions, the court had agreed with them that the Tal Law was discriminatory and hence violated the Basic Law: Human Freedom and Liberty.
Although it had been passed for good reasons, as an attempt to integrate the haredim into Israeli society, it had failed the test of proportionality because of the meager results achieved. But the court was willing to give the law more time.
On Sunday, the state's representative, Avi Licht, argued that the law had made great progress since then. An authority had been established to assist haredim find work in public service. Within one year, the number who had left yeshivot and were performing public service had jumped from 70 to 700, he said.
He also said that there had been major changes in haredi society. Rabbinical leaders understood that not everyone could belong to the "community of learners" and that haredi men would have to work to support themselves.
At this point, Justice Ayala Procaccia asked Licht to explain why, if the haredi leadership had come to understand this, it had forced through a law permitting them not to learn the secular "core curriculum" in the yeshivot ketanot, which are attended by high-school age boys. These core studies teach students skills that are meant to help them find a place in the modern world.
"On what basis do you expect the Tal Law to succeed and a process of change to take place in the haredi community, when we see that no such change is going to take place in the haredi educational system?" asked Procaccia. "Such changes don't happen by themselves."
Licht replied that the fact was that within one year, the number of haredim performing public service had increased tremendously.
"We cannot ignore this," he said.
Licht added that there will always be some yeshiva students who will continue to study full-time.
"The question is whether the arrangements provided by the law will reduce the gap," he said.
Licht predicted that beginning in 2012, about 2,000 yeshiva students would do public service and a few hundred would join the army each year.
He maintained that the number of haredim in the age cohort which reached draft age each year was about 4,500. Licht said that a total of about 6,000 yeshiva students ask for draft deferments, but many of them are enrolled in religious-Zionist yeshivas and seek to defer their service only by a year or two.
Eliad Shraga, who represented the Movement for Quality Government, said the number of haredim currently in the army or public service was a drop in the bucket. He said that as opposed to these figures, there were roughly 56,000 haredim of military conscription age who were studying in yeshivot and renewed their deferments each year.
This figure, he added, did not include tens of thousands of young haredim who had not served in the army and were still of draftable age but had married and had enough children to no longer be draftable. These students had to be taken into account when comparing the number of haredim serving in the army or in public service with those who do not serve at all.
Shraga also argued that the right to equality was not the only constitutional right that was violated by the Tal Law. Since the burden of military service was shared by fewer citizens than would be if the haredim also served, the danger to those who did serve increased. This situation violated their right to life.
Other rights that were violated by the law included the right to property, intellectual development and quality of life, Shraga argued.