And They Multiplied and Bred
Sara Leibovich-Dar • Ma’ariv [Apr. 30, p. B12] / Translation: Didi Remez • Coteret
The Tal Law: A yeshiva student, from the age of 18, will receive, once a year, a postponement of military service. In the course of his yeshiva studies, he is not permitted to work. At the age of 22, he will begin a year of decision, during which he can stop his yeshiva studies without having to enlist in the army. After that, he can serve for one year in civilian service, which will be considered regular military service, or return to his yeshiva studies. Anyone who does not perform civilian service or return to their yeshiva studies, will be drafted into the army in accordance with their age and personal situation
“This is a number that is growing, they are multiplying and breeding [Bible quote referring to the Children of Israel in Egypt]. The law was passed three years ago, now the state is saying that a committee will meet, in other words, three years have gone by to no purpose. The fear is that the five years that the state is asking will become ten years, because in the meantime, nothing will happen. When the five years elapse, they will come to us and say, give us another five years. I naively thought that the intent was to have them enlist in the IDF, like everyone else, like our children.” (former Supreme Court Vice President Mishael Heshin predicts the future, July 2005)
Mishael Heshin, it turns out, knew what he was talking about. Already five years ago, the former deputy vice president of the Supreme Court smelled the great deception behind the Tal Law—the law that attempted to instate order in the status of the yeshiva students when it came time to draft them into the army. The bottom line, according to Heshin, is that committees in Israel are formed and fall, but the Haredim continue to dodge the draft.
The fact is, it has been ten years since the establishment of the Tal Committee and there is nothing new under the shtreimel. Last week Ma’ariv revealed worrying data that were shown to the latest parliamentary committee that is supposed to supervise the Tal Law. The committee, headed by MK Yohanan Plesner, heard that the number of Haredi men studying in yeshivas funded by the state, for the first time since the state’s establishment, had crossed the 100,000 number, that 60,000 yeshiva scholars received an exemption from the IDF this year thanks to the Tal Law, and only a few hundred enlisted into the army.
“The intent was to exempt a small group of yeshiva scholars ‘for whom Torah is their profession’ and for all the rest to have to do regular military service, like the rest of the people of Israel, with a certain degree of consideration for their uniqueness,” said last week retired judge Zvi Tal. “Just as outstanding athletes are given leniencies and Arabs don’t serve at all even though the law doesn’t exempt them from military service, so there would also be leniencies for Haredim.”
Q: That’s not what the committee that you headed determined. Your conclusions made it possible for Haredim to do a short civilian service instead of full army service.
“That was the practical and pragmatic minimum. Among the committee members were those who thought that Haredim should do full military service and there were those who thought that the yeshivas have an important place, that they serve the people of Israel and that the Haredim should be allowed to continue to study instead of serving in the army. A law cannot overcome an entire population. If the law had determined that all Haredim must serve in the army, they would have all gone to jail rather than serve in the army. All of the committee members realized that it was impossible to coerce full military service on them against their will.”
Q: Basically, you perpetuated and legalized the inequality between secular and Haredim.
“There is no absolute equality in any sphere in the world. There is also no equality among those who serve in the army. There are combatants and there are other soldiers, there are rich and poor. We started the path toward equality. Until then, the Haredim didn’t enlist at all. Today the situation is better. It is not the law that is to blame for what happened, but its faulty implementation.”
In Complete Faith
In April 2000, exactly ten years ago, the conclusions were published of the Tal Committee, which examined the issue of Haredi enlistment into the army. Two years afterwards, the Knesset passed the Tal Law which was formulated based on the committee’s conclusions and determined that a yeshiva student would receive, from the age of 18, a postponement of military service once a year. In the course of his yeshiva studies, he would not be permitted to work. At the age of 22, he would begin a year of decision, in the course of which he could discontinue his yeshiva studies without enlisting into the army. Afterwards, he could serve for one year in civilian service which would be considered regular military service, or return to his yeshiva studies. Those who opted not to do civilian service or who returned to their yeshiva studies, would be drafted into the army based on their age and their personal situation.
The assessment was that thousands of Haredim would choose to do civilian service, so that they would be able to work at the end of the year of service. But that, as said, was only the assessment. In practice, the story is something else entirely. In the ten years that have since passed, out of about 100,000 yeshiva students, only 1,300 are doing civilian service, most of them in Haredi welfare institutions. About 800 young Haredi men serve in the army—much less than expected. Furthermore, the number of young Haredim who do not serve in the army has gone up and continues to go up steadily. Thus, for example, in 1977, only 8,000 Haredim did not serve in the army. In 1999, the year in which the committee was appointed, 30,000 Haredim did not serve in the army. Last year, according to the figures of the Hiddush non-profit organization for religious freedom and equality, 60,000 Haredim enjoyed a postponement of military service. According to the army’s assessments, in ten years, a quarter of all those of enlistment age will receive a postponement.
Retired judge Zvi Tal suggests an optimistic interpretation: “Until we came out with our conclusions, there was complete inequality. What we did was the first step toward equality.”
Q: It isn’t exactly equality when only about 2,000 out of 100,000 Haredi yeshiva students do any kind of service.
“Before the law was passed, we didn’t even have that. This is just the beginning.”
The Collapse of the People’s Army
“There is no other issue in the country about which there is as much of a consensus as the abhorrence toward Haredi draft-dodging,” says Shahar Ilan, the deputy director general for research and information in the Hiddush non-profit organization. “Whereas in the past the Haredim not doing service meant a division between blood and blood, today it is also does direct damage to the army. The army is lacking soldiers, and the fact that 100,000 yeshiva boys don’t serve in the army, affects the country’s national fortitude. The effect on the economy is no less serious. Two thirds of the Haredim don’t work because those who study in a yeshiva can’t work, and this makes Israel deteriorate into a Third World economy. With criminal negligence, the political establishment permitted the Tal Law to evaporate.”
MK Yohanan Plesner, who heads the parliamentary team that is examining the implementation of the Tal Law, is no less emphatic. “Not only is the law not good, its implementation is terrible. The army is doing almost nothing to promote the law and the government devotes no resources to it. We are going toward a model of the collapse of the people’s army.”
Minister Yitzhak Herzog, who was a member of the Tal Committee, believes that the ten years that have elapsed since the committee submitted its conclusions should not be examined on the basis of the numbers, “which, indeed, are not impressive,” but as a period of social processes. “The Tal report was a major component in the changes that have taken place in Haredi society. The committee did not propose the desired solution, but the practical solution, which is meant to bring about social change, and that is what happened. Many Haredi women now work, men have begun to learn professions, the model of civilian service in the Tal Law is gaining ground, the opposition in the Haredi sector toward army service is dropping, today there are combatants who walk around in Haredi neighborhoods, the Haredi soldiers serve in Unit 8200 [intelligence] and in the Air Force, at the end of the process they will understand that they have to lend a shoulder to the security establishment.”
Q: 60,000 Haredim do not serve in the army, and the numbers, according to the forecast, is that this will only increase. When will the process get moving and they start to understand?
“The calculation is not based on the mass, but the process in strong and consistent. You have to realize that they are not the only ones to blame. Sharon’s and Netanyahu’s economic plan gave an exemption from military service to yeshiva boys who work and created a competitive mechanism for the year of decision, the security establishment did not pay any attention to the law in the first five years. We still have a great ocean to cross, but we should look at the forest, not the trees.”
A History of Draft-Dodging
The Tal Committee was appointed in August 1999 by the prime minister at the time, Ehud Barak, in wake of the High Court ruling that determined that the Knesset must change the status quo in the matter of the exemption given to yeshiva students. It was preceded by three committees that examined the matter, the Menahem Hacohen committee in the 1980s, and two committees of the Defense Ministry headed by assistant to the defense minister Haim Yisraeli in the 1990s. The committees did not change the historic situation that had been in place since the state’s establishment whereby yeshiva student received an extension of their exemption from enlisting every six months. In the course of their studies, they were not permitted to work. Those who left the yeshiva were enlisted based on their personal situation.
The committee attracted criticism even before it began its work. The choice of the ten committee members, retired Supreme Court judge Zvi Tal; the cabinet secretary at the time Yitzhak Herzog; Maj. Gen. (res.) Moshe Nativ; deputy director general of the Defense Ministry Haim Yisraeli; the mayor of Hadera and former commander of the Border Police Yisrael Sadan; mayor of Bnei Brak Rabbi Mordechai Karlitz; the director general of Yeshivas Committee Rabbi Asher Tannenbaum; deputy legal adviser of the Defense Ministry Attorney Rahel Stuvitzky and the deputy attorney general Yehoshua Shufman, elicited great opposition. “The composition seems very wrong,” said Yossi Sarid, at the time, and said he feared that the committee members were biased toward the Haredim. Yosef Lapid argued that the committee’s composition was one-sided and the rabbis of United Torah Judaism expressed satisfaction from the fact that seven of the committee members had already expressed their opinion that those for whom Torah was their profession should continue not to enlist in the army.
Judge Tal said this week that different committee members could have been chosen, but that they would have reached conclusions that would have been hard to carry out. “If the committee members had decided on mass enlistment of Arabs and Haredim, that would have been a decision that would have been impossible to implement,” says Tal. “But all in all, there were sensible people on the committee who realized that it is impossible to force someone to serve in the army against their will.”
The committee’s deliberations went on for eight months. In April 2000, its conclusions were submitted to the prime minister and even Tal, who expected the commotion that would arise over the committee’s conclusions, admitted that the recommendations were “a compromise in all directions.” And a commotion did indeed ensue. Jerusalem high school students submitted a petition to the prime minister in which they called not to adopt the conclusions of the committee, as they perpetuated gaps and inequality between secular and Haredim. Protest tents of young people were set up in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv. “I would be in your tent if I were your age,” said the prime minister, Ehud Barak, to the young people who demonstrated opposite the Prime Minister’s Office. The Prime Minister’s Bureau issued a denial of this statement. What Barak meant was that he would have gone to the tent to discuss the committee’s conclusions, it said. MK Yosef Lapid said that any secular person enlisting was a sucker, that the Tal committee was a dirty deal and that it reaffirmed the message of the Shinui party platform of there being one people that continues to serve in the IDF, and a second people that continues to dodge the draft. “These conclusions have an anti-educational message,” Sarid said. “Those who serve in the IDF today feel that the State of Israel is tricking them,” said Prof. Amnon Rubinstein. There were also those who praised the conclusions. Justice minister at the time Yossi Beilin said that this marked an historic change that would make it possible for many more young people to serve in the IDF; NRP chairman Yitzhak Levy said that the committee’s recommendations were the first stage in the integration of the Haredim into Israeli society.
Three months after the publication of the conclusions, the cabinet approved them and decided to bring them to the Knesset for a vote. “You can give straw to donkeys, not us,” read large ads of the Awakening movement, a movement for a sane country whose activists handed out stickers at the draft office. The chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that dozens of reservists were returning their reservist cards to protest the Tal Law, but in July 2000, the law passed its first vote in the Knesset by a majority of 52 against 43, after Barak declared it a vote of confidence and talked about compromise and about trust between secular and religious. Two years later, in July 2002, the law passed in the Knesset by a majority of 51 in favor and 41 against. The Arab MKs supported it, Labor Party MKs were absent from the vote. “Those who passed the law are disconnected from what goes on in Israel,” said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the defense minister and the chairman of the Labor Party.
Prime minister Ariel Sharon, who was opposed to the law in its first vote, and announced that he could not support it for reasons of conscience, announced that he would vote in favor with a heavy heart. “Coercion is not the solution,” he explained, “we cannot reach a situation in which the Military Police go into the yeshivas.”
The High Court is Called to the Flag
The law went into practice in January 2003, but very quickly it became apparent that the commotion had been unnecessary and the law became a dead letter. After the first year of the law’s implementation, only 260 yeshiva students began a year of decision, out of 40,000 yeshiva students. Rabbi Mordechai Karlitz, then the mayor of Bnei Brak and today a real estate developer, who thought up the idea of a year of decision, says, “this was the only practical thing that could have been done.” In 2002, four petitions were submitted to the High Court requesting the law be revoked due to inequality and discrimination between blood and blood. In a hearing at the Supreme Court in July 2005, the representatives of the state admitted that the law had run into implementation difficulties and that only 1,115 yeshiva students had taken a year of decision and only 31 yeshiva student had enlisted into the army. The state argued that the implementation had run into difficulties because of a disagreement between the Welfare Ministry, which was meant to carry out the law, and the Finance Ministry, which was to fund it. In the course of the hearing, it was revealed that 41,500 yeshiva student had received a postponement of service based on the arrangement of Torah being their profession. “And they shall multiply and breed,” commented Judge Heshin. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that the law did indeed promote inequality, but did not revoke it.
In 2007, the Knesset extended by five years the validity of the Tal Law. According to the army’s figures, 50,000 Haredim received a postponement, only 650 are in the year of decision, one out of every three who ended the year of decision chose to return to the yeshiva. The expectation that thousands of yeshiva student would rush to do a year of civilian service at the end of which they would integrate into the work force, collapsed. MK Avraham Ravitz blamed the Finance Ministry for not agreeing to fund the program. Meshulam Nahari of Shas was more emphatic: “It’s not the arrangement for postponing service that is the country’s problem, but mixed marriages,” he said.
The Law is Beginning to Recover
In the last two years, the law has begun to recover. At the end of 2007, the Civilian Service Administration was established, which was headed for two years by Col. Reuven Gal. “In early 2008, the first yeshiva students arrived who volunteered for a year of civilian service,” said Gal this week. “I purposely kept this on a low flame. It was clear to me that if I made headlines the wall posters would come out against me and against civilian service, and that’s why I spent many weeks holding talks with rabbis to explain to them the importance of civilian service.”
Q: What arguments did you use?
“I talked to them at eye level about the hardships of making a living in the Haredi sector. Those who study in yeshivas in the framework of Torah is their profession, are not permitted to work, creating real distress. Young people after a year of civilian service can go to work. I told them—and they basically agreed with me—that not all young people are suited for the study framework. I reached an agreement with the rabbis whose significance was that if anyone were to ask them if they consented that a young person should join civilian service, they would nod. Today, between 70 to 90 yeshiva students enlist every month for one year of civilian service.”
Q: This year only 1,300 Haredim are doing a year of civilian service. That’s not even a drop in the ocean.
“You have to look at it differently. True, it’s not a large number, but in every draft year, there are about 6,000 Haredim who are exempt in the framework of Torah being their profession. 1,300 out of 6,000 is not a lot, but it is something.”
Q: And the majority of them serve in Haredi welfare institutions, meaning that the state is indirectly funding, by means of their service, Haredi institutions.
“I am familiar with this criticism, but you have to understand that if I were to send them to secular institutions, they wouldn’t go at all. They are willing to go to Laniado Hospital, but they won’t go to Beilinson.”
Q: The year of service also promotes inequality.
“True, it is not fair and promotes inequality, but a year and a half ago, it was zero. The state created an anomaly for many years, it can’t be amended overnight.”
“ The committee recommended a certain arrangement knowing full well that this is not a satisfactory arrangement but does provide a certain chance,” says Attorney Yehoshua Shufman, who was the deputy attorney general and a member of the committee and who wrote the final minority opinion of the committee. He has since retired, but continues to follow up on the law. “The law has proven itself to a limited degree, partly because the state did not invest anything in it. I was not happy with this arrangement from the first moment, but if not for the committee, there would be no recruitment of Haredim at all today and they would not be able to integrate into the work force. If anyone has a better arrangement, let them bring it.
[Hat Tip: Didi Remez • Coteret.]