Tal Law expires: Israel’s religious young men, women to be drafted
August 7, 2012 | Jewish Tribune
Linda Gradstein The Media Line
JERUSALEM – One of the rites of passage in Israeli society is the first army call-up notice that arrives in the mailbox of every Jewish young man and woman at age 16 and a half. Thus begins an 18-month process that culminates in being drafted at age 18 – men for three years and women for two. Men also do reserve duty into their 40s.
Until now, ultra-Orthodox youth – from the religious (haredi) sector that lives by rabbinic decree and believe that studying Jewish texts is the most important job anyone can have – received that call-up notice as well. But instead of being inducted into Israel’s defence forces, they would bring a letter from the yeshiva (seminary where they studied), and they would be given an automatic exemption until age 22. During that time, they were not allowed to work, but had to study full-time.
By age 22, they were either married or the army chose not to enlist them for other reasons. According to military sources, a total of 54,000 ultra-Orthodox youth received army exemptions this year alone.
All of that will likely change. As of Aug. 1, there are no legal exemptions for the haredi population. The reason is that the Tal law, which governed the exemption process, has officially expired and in a ruling handed down last February, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the law not be renewed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then appointed a commission to create a new law to govern drafting the ultra-Orthodox.
But under pressure from the religious right, Netanyahu disbanded the committee two days before it was due to issue its recommendations. So in effect, right now, there is no law.
“As of this morning, the military service law of 1986 is in effect, and when you get to age 18, you are drafted into the army,” Josh Hantmann, a spokesman for the defence ministry told The Media Line.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the army to prepare to draft the ultra-Orthodox within one month’s time, but most Israeli experts say they do not expect to see a flood of haredim joining the army.
“The defence minister still has the authority to exempt people and he will use it in this case,” Yair Sheleg, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute said. “He will say that the army is not prepared to draft the ultra-Orthodox because of their special lifestyle and must first prepare itself.”
While the ultra-Orthodox represent 10 to 12 per cent of the population, they also represent more than 20 percent of the children in primary school because of very high birthrates. They have stayed away from the army for several reasons: they believe in the strict separation of men and women; they observe very strict standards of Jewish dietary laws, which they believe the army fails to meet; and perhaps most importantly, they believe that their full-time study is the best way to serve G-d.
Underscoring the issue’s importance to the nation-at-large, drafting the ultra-Orthodox has become the main focus of Israel’s growing social protest movement.
Nevertheless, many ultra-Orthodox say that they would rather go to jail than serve in the army and rabbis are threatening to tell their followers to ignore the call-up orders. It is unlikely that the army will send out thousands of military police to arrest young ultra-Orthodox men who do not show up at the induction centres.
Sheleg, of the Israel Democracy Institute, does not believe these attitudes towards the army will change.
“The army lifestyle gives you orders for every minute of your life and the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle gives you orders for every minute of your life,” he said. “They are afraid that their religious lifestyle will be in danger.”
Some experts say that the present moment offers an opportunity to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the broader Israeli society.
“There is a growing group that is not receiving the tools or conditions to work in the modern economy and we’re doing nothing about it,” said Dan Ben David, the executive director of the Taub Centre for Social Policy and an economist at Tel Aviv University. “This could destroy our future.”
He said enrolment in ultra-Orthodox schools (yeshivot), which are funded by the Israeli government but teach Jewish texts almost exclusively and exclude secular studies, has increased by 57 per cent over the last decade.
He said the government should stop all special subsidies to these ultra-Orthodox schools. Drawing a parallel to ultra-Orthodox Jews residing in the United States and elsewhere who have full-time jobs and study Jewish texts in their spare time, Ben David predicted that, “There will be protests and then they will become like the ultra-Orthodox in any other country.”
As of today, an estimated 3,000 ultra-Orthodox are serving in the Israeli army, many in technical positions. Once finishing the army, they are eligible for government training courses, which help them get jobs. That may be the key to increasing the enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox.
As poverty rates rise, army service and joining the work force will start to seem more attractive. But as long as many rabbis forbid army service, the numbers are unlikely to rise significantly.
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