Why a Revised Tal Law is Not Enough

Simply coming up with new law to replace the Tal law is not enough. One also must change heart, mind, and process that guides the making and enforcing of law. Otherwise there will be no end to the creative end-runs around whatever law is passed.

David Ben Gurion

In the early days of the state, Ben Gurion made a deal with certain Jewish communities. Ben Gurion exempted yeshiva students from army service in exchange for their community’s agreement not to interfere with the newly formed state.

No formal law was passed to enshrine the deal. Rather the government simply granted automatic army deferrments to yeshiva students until they were eithr too old to serve in the army or were legally exempt through parenthood.

In 1997 the Israeli supreme court ruled that ad hoc administrative deferrments were illegal. The government either had to pass a formal law exempting yeshiva students from the army or else induct them on the same terms as students studying in secular schools. Other ethnic groups with army exemptions, were exempt by law. If he Haredim also wanted to be exempt, a law making them exempt had to be passed.

In the late 1990’s there was considerable opposition to a law that gave a permanent blanket deferrment for army students. The Tal law was designed as a compromise bill. Non yeshiva students would be drafted. Howver, genuine yeshiva students would be allowed to continue their talmudic studies up until age 23. After that point they would join the army for a short period, learn vocational skills, leave the army, and join the work force. Army service and work would help the Haredim be self-supporting and integrate into wider society, thus building a stronger economy and national identity.

At least that was the way it was sold to the general Israeli public. The reality however was quite different.

Studying in yeshiva is the norm for all up-standing members of the community, so the vast majority are guaranteed to be exempt up until age 23. Further, Haredim typically marry in their late teens and early twenties. By the time they are 23 they frequently have many children and so are usually exempt from army service due to their being married with children.

Surely those who designed the bill, knew the norms of the Haredi community? The law seems tailor made to be the talmudic equivalent of the rebellious child. In order to avoid ever stoning a child for rebellion the rabbis defined the traits of a rebellious child so narrowly, that the criteria were all but impossible to meet. So too here, the criteria are designed to ensure that no one who fits the community norms will ever need to serve.

Some yeshivas got around the requirement that people be studying talmud, by listing people as students regardless of whether they were actually attending the yeshiva. A certain percentage of so-called students in fact were working at a job in the community. When this created a public outcry, the government began inspecting yeshivas to make sure that students who were listed as enrolled in fact were enrolled. However, carrying out these inspections has proven challenging. Without suprise inspections it is quite easy to game the system. However, if inspections are done randomly and unexpectedly, there is a risk that the inspectors will arrive when a lecture is on-going. Rabbis resent government functionaries interrupting a lecture. When the government attempted to withhold their payments to yeshivas until they could carry out inspections, the haredi MK’s exerted tremendous pressure on the government to release the funds regardless.

Finally, even if a man remainded childless at 23, he didn’t usually end up in the army or national service. The 1997 Israeli Supreme Court decision not withstanding, the government continued its practice of giving automatic deferrments to yeshiva students 23 and older. Hiddush and Forum for the Promotion of Equal Share in the Burden filed a petition in the Supreme Court to challenge this practice in April, 2011.

Thus the promise of the Tal Law was never fulfilled. Army and national service rates among the Haredim are about half of those for the population at large: 50% of the general population serves in the army vs. 28%.

Proponents of the Tal law point out that the absolute numbers of Haredim doing either army service or national service are increasing. This is indeed true. In 2009, 729 Haredi soldiers enrolled in the IDF. By 2011, that number had risen to 1,282 – a 75% increase. Opponents point out that growth since 2002 does not keep pace with the population growth in the Haredi sector. Even the Israeli supreme court has looked skance at the number of Haredi soldiers and questioned the law as an effective response to its 1997 decision.

Regardless of how one feels about the numbers, the fact remains that the army and national service enrollment rates are still well below the rate for the general population. Even if the Tal law is increasing enrollment rates, it isn’t doing so nearly fast enough.

Even for those who did serve, the goal of integration was rarely met. 80% of Haredim served in special units filled with other haredim or did national service in haredi communites. In such a sheltered army experience, there was little opporturnity to learn wider Israeli norms for gender equality, respect for diversity, or working to support your family.

Further, in practice the only people required to serve are people who simply can’t or won’t study all day. The most respected members are those who can and will learn all day. Thus the people obligated to serve are not the most respected members of the community. The army is not getting the community’s future thought leaders. Even if the soldiers who serve go back to their community with a new found appreciation for tolerance, it is unlikely that they will ever have the kind of leadership position that would allow them to influence other members of their community with their tolerance.

Finally, even the most dedicated haredi soldiers often find themselves caught between the near divine authority of their rabbis and the day to day obligation to listen to their commanders. When defense or internal military policy isn’t to the liking of certain leading rabbis, they do not hesitate to demand that Haredim disobey their commanders. When Israel pulled out of Gush Katif, soldiers were told to refuse orders if asked to serve. More recently rabbis have demanded that these soliders walk out of settings where women are singing even if they face court martial or death.

The history of the Tal law makes it very clear that laws alone cannot effect social change:

  • Haredi law makers subverted the goal of integration by ensuring that the most up-standing young members of the community would always fit the rules for exemption.
  • Haredi yeshivas subverted the law by enrolling non-attending students
  • Haredi MKs subverted the law by applying intense pressure to fund Yeshivas that were not allowing inspections.
  • The department of the defense subverted the law by granting exemptions to the few who were required to serve.
  • In its eagerness to draft Haredi soldiers, the army subverted the law’s goal of integration by allowing Haredi soldiers to serve in units that lives and worked in a Haredi bubble.

Simply coming up with new law to replace the Tal law is not enough. One also must change heart, mind, and process that guides the making and enforcing of law. Otherwise there will be no end to the creative end-runs around whatever law is passed.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Changing the way entrenched power structures operate may seem overwhelmingly impossible, but it has been done before in history. However, these success stories only happened when movement leaders undrerstood that one had to fight the battle for people’s hearts. Ultimately our hearts decide whether we will embrace a law and support it, or use our creativity to subvert it and turn it into a law our hearts can live with.

Ghandi understood the power of guilt and shame. He deliberately allowed himself and his followers to be abused by soldiers so that they would feel shame at their own actions. Shame stopped certain soldiers in their tracks. Even more importantly it made it increasingly hard for British politicians to convince their constituents that holding India as a colony against its will was a policy England could be proud of.

Martin Luther King and other members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference also understood the power of national pride and religious devotion. Stirring songs rooted deep in the cadences of traditional American folk music and spirituals galvanized marchers and helped them keep hope in dark moments. Martin Luther King’s speeches linking the Biblical prophetic tradition, Christian brotherhood and the values enshrined in the declaration of independenced moved even those who could not forget the color of his skin.

Until we in Israel can find a way to draw on the deepest convictions of our Jewish and Zionist tradition to inspire changes in the way Haredim in the street relate to Israel, there will be no real change, no matter how many times we revise the Tal law.

Categories: Building a Just Israel | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Why a Revised Tal Law is Not Enough

  1. Meira

    I think everyone should do some sort of national service when they are 18 (not 23) , but I don’t think it has to be in the army. The army is a problem because when you are in the army you are the “property” of the army. You aren’t your own person so no matter how hard the army tries to accommodate haredim they will always feel divided between the army and their rabbis.

    If you are doing national service, then you are your own person. Also even haredim believe in gemilut chasidim. We should work hard to create more service opportunities that are attractive to charedim. For example, maybe we should create Haredi corps of volunteers who work in hospitals and old age homes. Or even prepare food for the army as national service volunteers rather than as soldiers.

    I think we could convince haredim to be more open to being drafted if we stressed a national service option rather than just give exemptions.

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