There is a temptation to call Tuesday evening’s High Court of Justice ruling against the legality of the Tal Law a landmark decision, a towering ruling that will stand out against the undulating vista of history and judiciary precedent — a decision that will change the face of the IDF the way that Brown v. Board of Education changed the face of America’s public school system. But that temptation is best resisted.
The Israel Defense Forces, come August 1 when the law expires, is not going to be robustly populated with soldiers in sidelocks. The 61,000 Talmud students and yeshiva dwellers currently exempted under the Tal Law will not soon arrive at the gates of Camp Dori, the IDF’s induction center.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised that a “more just” decision would be reached. The emphasis should be on “more.” Justice is beyond the grasp of this Israeli government, just as it has been beyond the grasp of every government since the state’s inception in 1948, when Ben-Gurion agreed to the “deal,” a 400-person exemption so that the flame of Torah study could continue to burn after the decimation of the Holocaust.
The Tal Law — named for Justice Zvi Tal, who headed a commission founded in 1999 at the behest of then-prime minister Ehud Barak — has allowed all male yeshiva students five years of additional Torah study after draft age. At 22, they were given a year to decide whether to remain in yeshiva, perhaps for life, or join the workforce. Those who chose the latter option could either enlist in the army for an abbreviated term of service with high pay or perform a year of national service without pay. Frequently, because of their age and the number of children they had, the law essentially served yeshiva students as an exemption. In 2010, only 600 ultra-Orthodox men joined the IDF, the High Court of Justice said Tuesday in its ruling.
Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch deemed the law “unconstitutional.” Justice Elyakim Rubinstein referenced the great Torah scholar of the Middle Ages, Maimonides, who ruled that in a just war “grooms should leave their chambers and brides their wedding canopies” in order to fight. Sharpening his rhetorical blade further, he wondered whether “in a time when there are those looking to annihilate us,” as it says in the Passover Haggadah, the ultra-Orthodox community planned to resemble the Israelite tribes of Reuven and Gad, who were asked by Moses: “Shall your brethren go to war, and shall ye sit here?”
The answer most likely remains a resounding, deflating yes.
Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, the head of Manpower in the IDF, said last week, amid the storm over the Tal Law, that she remains determined to “preserve the people’s army model in the IDF” and that there was “no other alternative” but to inculcate a strong desire among “diverse and different sectors of the population” to serve.
Her predecessor, the now-retired Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, has far more leeway for candor. “The state of Israel is currently incapable of forcibly drafting three ultra-Orthodox men at the same time,” he said in a recent phone conversation.
Stern’s solution is to “swallow hard” and simply exempt all ultra-Orthodox men from service. Once the threat of the army no longer hovers over their heads, he said, half of them would leave the yeshivas and join the workforce. The wheels of integration would then finally start to spin and hopefully, in 10 years’ time, we’ll “meet them around the bend and try again.”