In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made an accommodation for full-time yeshiva students to serve their country by studying Torah rather than enlisting in the army. There were only 400 such young men at the time, and Ben-Gurion believed the number would diminish.
Today, with the remarkable growth of the haredi community, there are approximately 70,000 yeshiva students exempted from army service, and the current situation is not healthy for Israeli society in general, and the haredim in particular. The majority of Israelis resent that the haredim do not serve along with their own sons and daughters, and that their full-time commitment to Torah study takes them out of the work force, with many able young men and their large families dependent on government subsidies. For a country as small as Israel’s to have such a serious social gap and alienation within its Jewish population is deeply worrisome.
Last week the Supreme Court, by a 6-3 vote, ruled that the so-called Tal Law (named for retired Supreme Court justice Tzvi Tal) is unconstitutional. The law was the extension of a mandate allowing yeshiva students at the age of 22 to choose between a one-year civil service post and a 16-month stint in the military. But it was ruled to be undemocratic and unequal, and will expire in August.
The decision was hailed by a range of political leaders, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who have called for greater equality within the population.
The court ruling was an acknowledgment that the law’s attempt to encourage large numbers of haredim to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces over the last decade has been a failure. But at present there is no practical alternative to the current system, and even those hailing the court ruling have allowed the status quo to continue, recognizing the political clout of the haredi political parties.
One need not be a cynic to predict that unless a serious, long-term plan is created and put in place to bring haredi young men into some form of national service and the work force, August will come and go and an extension of the law will somehow be passed. And we will be back to where we started.
This is an opportunity to bring haredi leaders into the socialization process, not through coercion but by assuring them that their religious standards need not be compromised in taking on their share of responsibility in ensuring the survival and stability of our only Jewish state.