(Jewish Ideas Daily) — This week, the Deferral of Military Service for Yeshiva Students Law, better known as the Tal Law, expires. This law is the latest enactment of the so-called “status quo arrangement,” which frames the uneasy relationship between Israel’s Haredi and secular populations. As such, the expiration of the law and the majority’s desire to draft Haredim en masse into the military upsets a fragile balance.
Why is the Tal Law such a sensitive issue, and how exactly did Israel come to this legislative impasse?
The story of the law goes back to the months leading up to Israel’s independence, to an agreement between David Ben-Gurion, then head of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency Executive, and the heads of the Haredi Agudath Israel organization. As UN fact-finders arrived in 1947 to “make recommendations . . . concerning the future government of Palestine,” Ben-Gurion sought a united front of all Jews in Palestine, and consequently made the concessions necessary to get the Haredim on board. One such concession, first granted in early 1948, was the exemption of yeshiva students from conscription into the pre-state militia.
To be sure, not all yeshiva students in 1948 were Haredi, and many Haredim served in the military. With time, however, the Haredi community increasingly adopted the Hazon Ish’s ideal of the “society of scholars,” while religious-Zionist yeshiva students opted to integrate Torah study with military service. Thus, the issue of deferral for yeshiva students became associated solely with the Haredi population.
No law was passed recognizing the unique status of yeshiva students: Instead, in 1949 the Defense Minister (conveniently, also Ben-Gurion) was granted discretion as to who would and would not be drafted, and the ministry allowed students to defer conscription for as long as they remained in yeshiva.
But within a few years, with Haredi demographic growth outpacing that of the rest of the Israeli population, the number of yeshiva deferrals more than tripled. Objections were also raised that some students were enrolling in yeshiva in order to dodge the draft.
The issue was revisited in 1954 and again in 1968, but no profound adjustments were made. Eventually, in 1970, it came before Israel’s Supreme Court, but the challenge was rejected. The status quo was politically and legally secure.
The 1977 electoral victory of Menachem Begin’s Likud heralded the emergence of a two-party system in Israel, enabling the smaller Haredi parties to wield more influence as the larger parties offered concessions in return for their coalitional cooperation. This rise of Haredi power and the resultant increase in material benefits to yeshiva students left Israel’s middle class with a sense of injustice.
The resentment toward the Haredi community was manifest in electoral pledges to end wholesale Haredi deferrals and entitlements, and was arguably a key motive for last summer’s test protests.
Still, the arrangement continued: as of early 2011 there were over 61,000 yeshiva students deferring military service.
So why might change now be afoot?
The answer lies with the Supreme Court. Having rejected two earlier petitions against the deferrals, in 1986 the court changed its mind, as Justice Aharon Barak judged the Defense Minister’s exercise of authority reasonable but left the door open to reconsideration in the future, which he did as Chief Justice in 1998. In light of the growing rift within Israeli society and the burgeoning number of deferrals, he reasoned, yeshiva students’ deferrals must be enshrined in a legislative act.
In response to the ruling, the government established a committee headed by retired Justice Zvi Tal to make legislative recommendations. Those recommendations formed the basis of the Tal Law, passed in 2002, which enshrined exemptions for full-time yeshiva students, but also enacted measures to encourage Haredim to do an abbreviated service and enter the workforce.
The measures were unsuccessful, and the court intervened again in 2006, giving the law another five years to prove more successful. Although modest results were achieved in that time, the court was still dissatisfied, and in February 2012 judged the Tal Law to be unconstitutional — forbidding its extension beyond the summer.
Over the past few months, every conceivable option has been proposed, from drafting everyone equally (even if that would mean wholesale jailing of Haredi draft dodgers) to cancellation of the draft altogether in favor of a professional army. Ultimately, Netanyahu faces effectively the same question Ben-Gurion faced in 1947: Will yeshiva students be forcibly conscripted or will they serve if and when they so choose?
It is unrealistic to imagine that the uneasy relationship between Israel’s Haredi and secular populations that has prevailed over the last 70 years will shift overnight. Like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu is choosing the path of compromise and gradual change, with the goal of encouraging yeshiva students to enlist voluntarily.
Elli Fischer, a writer and translator who lives in Modi’in, Israel, did not serve in the IDF due to his flat feet, allergies, and hypothyroidism. This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily(www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.