The haredi street and the Tal Law

The haredi leadership is, once again, letting a momentous opportunity slip by due to extremist ideologies.

Haredi IDF soldiers Tal Law 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
Haredi IDF soldiers Tal Law 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)
Abba Eban’s declaration in 1973 that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” is well known. I believe it is time to adjust that quote. As a person who grew up in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world in Jerusalem and serves as a rabbi and member of Knesset representing that population, it is simply incredible how the haredi political and rabbinic leadership never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The entire country is focused on the issue of haredim not sharing the national responsibility of serving the country. Two political foes, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, have decided to work together. Among the four things they could agree upon was legislation to address this pressing issue. They agreed to form a committee to make recommendations to the government and offered the haredi parties representation on that committee. But they rejected the offer.
The entire country is demanding change. The prime minister offered the haredi leadership a chance to work together with him to formulate a policy and a compromise. And the leadership let down its large numbers of more moderate constituents and now will be forced to deal with whatever the committee recommends.
Of course, these “leaders” think that they will simply threaten to leave the coalition and also not support the prime minister after the next elections and that threat will cancel implementation of the committee’s recommendations. This assessment is most certainly a mistake, but it is not the most serious mistake they made in rejecting participation in the committee. Their gravest error was abandoning large percentages of their constituents, and, in the case of the Shas party, nearly all of their constituents.
THE HAREDI political and rabbinic leadership are completely out of touch with the haredi street. While only 16 percent of haredi males currently enlist in the army, a recent poll indicated that 41% would like to serve! As a haredi, I can say with certainty that haredim feel uncomfortable with the concept of others risking their lives while they do not contribute to the country.
Haredim hear the cry of Moses. They know very well that towards the end of the book of Numbers, twoand- a-half tribes requested to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and Moses responded, “Will your brothers go to war while you remain here?” You may ask how I, as a haredi, can say that the Torah learners are not contributing to the country? Aren’t they studying Torah, which gives the country spiritual meaning, spiritual justification and even the protection of the Almighty? Isn’t this their contribution to the country, as haredi leaders always respond to criticism of lack of participation in the nation’s needs? My answer is that of course, those who truly study Torah day and night contribute to the country and they deserve our full support and even exemption from IDF service. I have presented this idea to audiences of all backgrounds, including non-observant Israelis, throughout the country and all are in agreement.
But how many young men have the drive, the dedication, the focus, and the skill to study Torah day and night throughout their lives? The number is very small. Those elite and select few are certainly contributing.
But all the rest are not serving the country and must do so through their many non-learning hours.
I have spent significant time discussing these issues with Defense Ministry officials and IDF leaders and am well aware of the fact that the army is not prepared for tens of thousands of haredi young men to be thrust into military service. This is why national and community service will be acceptable forms of service to the country and all populations accept this as a first step.
This system will ensure that those who qualify to only study Torah will be exempt from other forms of national service. The haredi leadership’s refusal to participate in the Tal Law committee is actually a betrayal of those true Torah learners.
This is a prime example of their “missing an opportunity” since now they are subject to the whims of a committee consisting of MKs who do not understand the Torah world and who will, no doubt, create an arbitrary number of exemptions which will not ensure an elite group as I described above.
In addition, they “missed an opportunity” to, perhaps for the first time, demonstrate unity and working together with the rest of the country in finding a solution and alleviating the ever-growing tensions in today’s Israeli society.
If I am granted that opportunity to serve on the new Knesset committee, I will serve as the voice of the silent haredi majority that desires to become part of Israeli society. The Tal Law did a disservice to the average haredi who was trapped in that system and only deep inner strength and courage empowered the 16% who enlisted to go against the norm.
It is time for the rest of the country to free tens of thousands of young men from the “shackles” the leadership has placed on them through reasonable legislation which ignores the extremist haredi political leadership and heeds the silent call for fairness and real contribution to society from haredi street.
So, while the haredi leadership is, once again, letting a momentous opportunity slip by due to extremist ideologies, I hope that we, as a nation, do not miss this opportunity.
The author is a member of Knesset, an ordained rabbi and the chairman of the Am Shalem movement.