A convenient law for the haredim [pg. 4]

Encouraging talmudic minds to contribute to the gross domestic product by leaving yeshivot for hi-tech firms or other commercial venues, with only a short army stint in-between, is an idea that is still alive and kicking thanks to the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Tal Law. Precious few young haredim have taken advantage of that Tal Law option to date, however, and some haredi leaders, who would rather all their youths studied full-time, wish it had been shot down. True, United Torah Judaism has clearly stipulated in its negotiations with Kadima that extension of the Tal Law, which expires in 2007, is a condition for joining Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition. However, there is nothing in that coalition agreement which would make the Tal Law more than what it is now: an empty gesture that gives the impression of compromise. The Tal Law remains unimplemented. Therefore, it leaves unchanged the status quo established in 1948 when David Ben-Gurion and Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz [the Hazon Ish] agreed that about 400 yeshiva students could indefinitely postpone IDF service. This situation is convenient for the haredim. They can point to the Tal Law as an example of their willingness to compromise. Degel Hatorah's Council of Sages even voted in favor of the law, though not without turmoil and controversy: Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapira resigned from the council in protest and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman is ostracized to this day in many more zealot haredi circles for spearheading the move - a move thus far without impact. The numbers speak for themselves. Only 177 yeshiva students out of about 47,000 of conscription age have served in the IDF or are waiting to do civilian service under the Tal Law since 2002 when the Knesset passed it, according to figures provided by the state to the Supreme Court at the end of 2005. "A yeshiva student who opted for civilian service, for instance working with delinquent youth, ended up sitting at home waiting for a phone call that never came," said MK Rabbi Avraham Ravitz (UTJ). "As deputy social affairs minister, I told the Treasury we would need NIS 20 million to implement the law. Needless to say, the money never materialized," he said. Ravitz, who with Steinman's backing help steamroll the Tal Law through the Knesset, tacitly admitted that non-implementation of the law made his life easier. "People don't understand that my fiercest and most vociferous opponents are not secular Israelis, they are my own constituents," Ravitz said. But Dudi Zilbershlag, publisher of the haredi weekly Bakehila and chairman of the Meir Panim charitable organization, is still convinced that the Tal Law is the optimal solution to problems created by having tens of thousands of young men devoting their lives exclusively to study at the expense of economic and professional self-sufficiency. "The mere fact that both haredi and secular Israelis oppose the law is clear proof that it is the best possible compromise," said Zilbershlag. "I just hope that after all this time legislators, both secular and haredi, haven't lost the will to do what it takes to turn it into a real solution."