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February 22, 2012 12:36 pm

The Rise and Fall of Israel’s Tal Law

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IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz with IDF soldiers. Photo: wiki commons.

In August of 1999, then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appointed retired Judge Tzivi Tal to head a public committee aimed at tackling the issue of the ultra-orthodox exemptions from the IDF.

Although not technically exempting the Yeshiva students, the status quo looked to respect those who dedicated their time to the study of Torah. Yet the growing discontent within Israeli society, where many viewed the existing state of affairs as undemocratic and unequal, and the inconsistency among ultra-orthodox youth – some using the ‘right to study’ as a guise for dodging the draft – forced Israeli politicians to find an alternative.

Tal, and six others, completed a report in April of the following year. The report focused on recommending manners in which ultra-orthodox participation in national service could increase, without preventing Yeshiva students from continuing their religious studies.

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On 23 April 2002, the Knesset passed the Tal Law with a majority of 51-41.

The bill detailed conditions for Yeshiva students to qualify for military exemption: At the age of 22, students would be fronted with a choice to either continue their studies or step into the workplace. If they were to choose the latter, they would be required to fulfill national service duties by either enlisting in a minimalist army service of four months with addition of reserve duties according to the army’s needs, or a civilian service of one year, without any salary.

The law was met with widespread criticism within all denominations of Israeli society. Leaders of ultra-orthodox communities condemned the law on ideological grounds, while many secularists felt it let the Hareidim off too lightly.

In any case, by 2005 only several dozen ultra-orthodox students enlisted for military service, and the Knesset officially admitted that the Tal law had failed. The political climate was tense and the public scorned the government’s attitude toward the ultra-orthodox communities as unjust.

However, Judge Tzivi Tal, author of the law, claimed the bill flopped because the IDF “isn’t interested” in implementing it.

In an interview with the Yisrael Hayom newspaper, he said “no attempt was made to recruit them because the IDF does not want them,” citing the reluctance to absorb ultra-orthodox culture within the military as the primary impetus for neglecting religious recruits. “A framework would have to be established including kosher food, religious Shabbos observance, and gender-related Jewish laws,” he explained.

In a short moment of glory, the bill claimed a landmark achievement in 2008, in recognizing Chabad outreach activities as a legal product of national service. The inclusion of Chabad humanitarian programs – such as assisting the ill and infirm, and preparing youth for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs – as legitimate forms of national service served the bill’s true cause of bridging the gap between the ultra-orthodox communities and military/civilian service ,w hile respecting the commitments of the religious society.

The bill kicked up dust again in the Israeli political sphere when in early January PM Netanyahu announced that the cabinet intends to extend the law’s validity for another five years. The law was originally introduced with a ten-year expiry that ends this August, and required the Knesset to discuss its possible extension or termination six months before.

However, facing political pressure from Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu reneged on his earlier statement and pledged “to deliver an alternative within six months” while referring the Tal law issue to a vote in the Knesset.

That vote came through yesterday (Tuesday, 21 February), with Israel’s High Court of Justice ruling by a majority of six to three against extending the law in its current format.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak welcomed the verdict, saying “The Tal Law, after ten years, did not meet expectations, nor did it lead to the required changes in all aspects concerning equally sharing the burden and expanding the number of citizens who undertake the civilian obligations.”

The defense minister emphasized the urgency of passing a new law that would bring equality to sharing the burden in Israeli society. Barak and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz have both expressed their opinions in the past that all Israelis must be enlisted in either military or civilian service.

In its ten year history, the Tal law failed to meet the hopes and expectations of all corners within Israel’s public, and it will be laid to rest this coming August – without a promising alternative in sight.

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