After Tal

It is conceivable that a larger number of haredim will eventually share in the collective burdens of Israel.

Haredi Soldiers 311 (photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
Haredi Soldiers 311
(photo credit: YAAKOV KATZ)
The Tal Law failed to achieve its goal. In April 2000, when a committee headed by former judge Zvi Tal presented recommendations to the Knesset to help more haredim (ultra-Orthodox) make the transition from the study hall to the job market without forgoing mandatory national or military service, a total of 31,000 yeshiva students between the ages 18 and 41 received deferrals from the IDF.
Today, 10 years after the Tal Committee’s recommendations became a law conditional upon renewal by the Knesset every five years, that number is more than 60,000. And the haredi population is growing at a breathtaking rate.
Already, 13 percent of 18-year-olds defer military service to pursue Torah studies. Another 12% dodge the draft due to psychological or physical incompatibility, because they are not in the country or, in a fraction of cases, due to conscientious objection to military service. However, while non-haredi draft-dodging has remained more or less steady, the number of military-age young men requesting deferrals to study Torah has been growing steadily.
Part of it is the result of the high rate of natural growth among haredim, and part of it is the result of a “haredization” process among national religious youths. Unless the situation changes, within a decade or two half of all 18-year-old boys will opt out of mandatory military service – completely undermining in the process the Zionist ideal of “the people’s army,” which advocates mandatory military service for all.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will ask the cabinet to renew the Tal Law for an additional five years. The prime minister argued that while the total number of haredim being drafted into the IDF or National Service was still low compared to the multitudes choosing to devote their time to Torah study, there were signs that the trend was slowly changing.
According to Netanyahu, 1,282 haredim were drafted in 2011, a 40% rise from last year. Another 1,118 opted for National Service (sherut leumi). And according to its director-general, 1,800 haredim have volunteered this year for National Service.
Indeed, more haredim have been integrated into the IDF thanks to special programs tailored to the needs of the community. The old “melting pot” ethos, which aimed to resocialize young soldiers, has been replaced with a softer, multicultural approach.
Greater gender equality, soldiers swearing an oath of loyalty on the New Testament, and the ascendancy of “peripheral” groups to top ranks once dominated by kibbutzniks are all signs of this change. The IDF has also taken major steps to reach out to haredi soldiers. Via frameworks such as Nahal Haredi or Shahar – strictly gender- segregated environments that provide regular Torah classes, access to spiritual guidance and glatt-kosher food – the IDF has gone out of its way to accommodate haredi requirements. A parallel process has taken place in National Service, which allows haredi young men to serve one or two years within their communities.
Still, it would be unwise to renew the Tal Law for an additional five years. Doing so is liable to lead to complacency.
Instead, Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s recommendation of extending the law for just one year and reevaluating the situation makes more sense. Doing away with the Tal Law altogether, abolishing deferrals and forcing young haredi men to join the IDF under threat of fine or imprisonment would only strengthen the most extreme elements in the haredi community who are fundamentally opposed to any form of military or national service.
Instead, the state must find ways to maintain gentle but insistent pressure on haredi young men to share with their non-haredi brethren in the collective endeavor to defend the Jewish state. Providing economic incentives to those who do serve, creating additional frameworks within the IDF and National Service that include the haredi population, and allowing evolutionary changes within this population to proceed unhindered are the best methods of facilitating integration.
It is disconcerting to imagine that due to haredi natural growth, within a decade or two, half of all 18-year-old boys will opt out of mandatory military service. But it is possible to imagine something else – that in another decade or two, the haredi population will have changed dramatically, and significantly larger numbers will be sharing in the collective burdens of the Jewish nation. Coercion will not expedite this inevitable change; it will only delay it.