Enlistment centers are not readying to fill up with ultra-Orthodox Jews trading in their black hats for olive uniforms from Wednesday. But they should be, several NGOs claim. Since the Tal Law, which allowed yeshiva students to avoid service, expires on Wednesday, those NGOs are launching a mixture of social activism and legal action to try to advance the cause of universal conscription.
In one such symbolic protest, a group of activists from the Joint Camp (also know as “the suckers’ tent”) and the Israeli Forum for Equal Service were distributing mock conscription notices along with flowers to young ultra-Orthodox men in the city of Bnei Brak Tuesday evening.
“No one is interested in drafting you by force; no one wants to change your way of life,” the notices read. “We are brothers. We always were and always will be. Come and join us in the national burden to create a healthy society where we know and respect one other.”
The Tal Law allowed ultra-Orthodox men to postpone their military service for four years providing they were registered for full-time study at a yeshiva (religious academy) and did not work elsewhere. At the age of 22, they were permitted to choose between a year of civil service, recruitment to the IDF, and continued studying. Following a seven-year legal battle, the Supreme Court in February ruled the Tal Law unconstitutional, and it expires on August 1 — Wednesday.
Netanyahu promised to amend the law, but on July 2 dissolved a Knesset committee headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner which he had appointed to draft an alternative law, explaining that its recommendations could not be realistically legislated. Subsequent talks between Plesner and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon failed to yield a new universal conscription law, and Kadima left the coalition over the issue.
With no alternative to the Tal Law, the general conscription law theoretically applies equally to all Jewish residents of Israel as of Wednesday, but the Defense Ministry has made plain that there will be no immediate change in the norm whereby young ultra-Orthodox men are not forced to serve.
That’s unacceptable, said Boaz Nol, a member of the Joint Camp. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to rectify a terrible injustice,” Nol told The Times of Israel as he prepared to head for Bnei Brak Tuesday. “Since we began our protest in January we never went to Bnei Brak, because our problem is with the government. We aren’t going there to protest but only to wish them a pleasant conscription.”
‘Those who think that the Tal Law will lapse and that draft-dodging will continue with government funding as though nothing has happened are mistaken’
Nol said the new legal situation beginning Wednesday is theoretically desirable, but since the government has no intention of recruiting the ultra-Orthodox in accordance with the pre-Tal Law legislation on universal conscription, the law remains “a bluff.”
Tuesday night’s type of symbolic protest is all very well, said Tzruya Medad-Luzon, a legal counsel at the Movement for Quality of Government, but that kind of activity will not suffice to recruit the ultra-Orthodox en masse.
“Social protest is definitely important but I think the legal track is more effective,” Medad-Luzon told The Times of Israel. She said that over the years her movement has spearheaded numerous protests and sit-ins demanding a more equitable conscription regime, even initiating a hunger strike in 2000.
“Politicians would come to our tent and say ‘we agree with you, but we have coalition constraints,’” she said.
On Tuesday the movement petitioned the Supreme Court, demanding that the Defense Ministry prepare to absorb large numbers of young ultra-Orthodox men and open suitable units for them within the military. Chief Justice Edna Arbel scheduled a court session on the matter for September.
Netanyahu has acknowledged that the IDF could not conscript all draft-age ultra-Orthodox and would use its discretion in deciding whom to recruit. But Medad-Luzon said that was illegal.
“Back in 1998 the Supreme Court ruled that the defense minister has no authority to defer military service without a legal framework, so now it is up to the Knesset to legislate. By returning the responsibility for recruitment to the army, the prime minister is taking us one step forward and two steps backward.”
‘Politicians would come to our tent and say “we agree with you, but we have coalition constraints”‘
Medad-Luzon added that if the government does not comply with the legal pressure exerted on it, her organization may consider harsher legal actions. One such action, in the form of economic pressure, was taken by another Israeli NGO, Hiddush, which deals with matters of religious freedom in Israel.
On Monday Hiddush turned to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein demanding that Israel stop funding 54,000 registered yeshiva students. The organization estimated funds paid to religious learning institutions at NIS 1 billion a year ($250 million). The organization argued that starting August 1, the legal basis that allows for mass subsidization of yeshivas will lapse, rendering such funding illegal.
“Those who think that the Tal Law will lapse and that draft-dodging will continue with government funding as though nothing has happened are mistaken,” Hiddush director Uri Regev said Monday in a press statement. “Those who don’t serve cannot and should not receive government funding.”
No government comment was available at time of publication.