The flawed Tal law

Published in Israel Hayom, January 29, 2012.

The Tal Law governing the military draft of Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews in Israel has fallen well short of its objectives and satisfied no-one. Neither those who mistakenly want to ram army service down the throats of the Ultra-Orthodox, nor those who helpfully seek to draw the Haredim out of their ghettos, have been able to embrace the Tal law with any enthusiasm.

Justice Zvi Tal and the national commission who crafted the law got it right on the basics: that it is important that the State of Israel allow the world of Torah study to flourish; that, concurrently, it is morally unacceptable that an entire class of Israeli citizens automatically be released from the burden of defending the country; that army service cannot be forced on the Haredim, and that they are, anyway, of no overwhelming value to the army; and that the remedy lies in a social re-engineering of Haredi society.

The Tal law passed in 2002 allows Haredi men to study Torah and defer army service until age 23. Then, they can leave yeshiva for a year of “adjustment” (supposedly vocational training) without facing immediate draft. If they decide to remain “on the outside” (i.e., outside the closed world of full-time yeshiva study) these men become draftable, serving either six months in the army with annual reserve duty or a year of civilian service.

In 2011, about 2,400 of 8,500 Haredi men who could and should have enlisted in the IDF took the Tal route and completed either abbreviated army or civil national service. This is progress, but it is not good enough, especially since the Haredi demographic is growing.

The main problem with the Tal law isn’t the (unfortunate, but unavoidable) legitimacy it provides to Haredi draft-dodging between 18 and 23 years of age nor the “quickie” minimal service options for older men. Yes, these make me mad, but like Tal, I recognize that equalizing the defense burden is an impossible goal at this time. My problem with the law is that Tal’s social engineering solutions for the Haredi world fall far short of the mark.

The greatest problem we have with the Haredi world, and its greatest predicament within itself, is not draft dodging. It is the Haredi failure to prepare its young men and women for a productive working role in society. As a result, the Ultra-Orthodox world suffers from dreadful poverty (half of the 70,000 children in Ultra Orthodox Bnei Brak live under the poverty line) and other social ills – becoming a drain on the Israeli economy and a strain on the fabric of our society. It is also clear that the cloistering-away of Haredi men in a non-working, never-ending yeshiva environment breeds religious extremism – such as fanatic standards of gender separation that now plague the religious world.

Three things prevent the masses of Haredim from leaving the bloated yeshiva world and going out to work: the draft; the incredible, all-embracing cocoon of government stipends and subsidies currently granted to yeshiva families who don’t work; and the fact that most Haredim do not have the secular education necessary to obtain a decent, salaried job in the modern world.

The solution, then, to these problems is uncomfortable but obvious: release the Haredim from the draft at an even younger age (say at age 20, before Haredi couples have five kids); end government subsidies for yeshiva families beyond this age; and facilitate the establishment of more academic educational frameworks appropriate for Haredim.

Those Haredim with serious Torah careers ahead of them will continue to study Torah in yeshivot of distinction with rigorous acceptance and achievement standards. Religious society will find ways to support them, and I support government funding for such yeshivot too – within reasonable limits.

The rest of Haredi men – the majority – will be drawn out of hiding in unexceptional yeshivot, to their benefit and ours, and into the real working world. Once this begins to happen, Haredi men will realize that they need to get educated in maths, sciences and the humanities; and that service in the army is to their advantage when competing for jobs.

Realistically, this is the only way Haredim will enter the army; only once they start working; only as a result of long-term, deep-rooted change in the societal patterns and mores of Haredi society. Non-HarediIsraelhas a responsibility to help effect this change.

The Tal law recognized this, but failed to apply the tough medicine necessary to bring about the required societal shifts. Instead, it instituted a series of parve, half-way measures – nisht a hin in nisht a heir (neither here nor there).

By the time the Tal law lets Haredim are let out of the yeshivot without fear of the full-fledged draft, most of them have large families and benefit from enormous government subsidies for yeshiva families – in baby benefits, kollel stipends, and massive reductions in municipal taxes, health insurance fees and school fees. (Haredi parents pay 80 percent less than Religious Zionist parents, for example, for the schooling of their kids).

The benefits to non-working Haredi yeshiva families can easily reach NIS 6,000 a month or more according a report presented to the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee. This is a significant sum, neither easy to give up nor to replace through employment. How many Haredi men entering the work force in their mid to late twenties qualify for jobs that pay well enough to offset the loss of these generous benefits?

Thus the Tal law half-measures beget an extremely problematic brew: a legitimization of the fact that Haredi 18-year-olds don’t get drafted; coupled with a lame social re-ordering that fails to furnish the medicine necessary for a repair of Haredi society and the healing of the Israeli social fabric.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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