For the first time in years, a serious threat has been levied at the Israeli status quo on the issue of Ultra Orthodox Jews serving in the Israeli army. Ultra Orthodox Jews, for many reasons, often won’t serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), needless to say rarely approaching units like infantry or tanks. Many instead spend their early adult years attending Yeshivas with their tuition & livelihoods subsidized by government grants. There is indeed a substantial bureaucracy which regulates the practice and therefore is employed to deal with it. The mechanism by which the machinery runs is a piece of legislation called the Tal Law, named after the head of the committee that researched how to reform the practice of exempting Ultra Orthodox Jews from the IDF.
The Tal Committee was run by Tzvi Tal, a Justice on the Israeli Supreme Court, starting in 1999. By 2002, the committee was set up because on the one hand, the exemptions weren’t exactly legal. The Supreme Court itself had decided that there needed to be a formal law regulating it. At the time, since the early 70s, it was by a sort of executive order from the Minister of Defense that had granted the exemptions.
One might ask though why this has gone on so long. This is one of, if not the main issue characterizing social and political differences between secular & religious Israelis. The non-involvement of Ultra Orthodox Jews in the military characterized their rejection of the state. Continuing the practice seemed not just to be a rejection of Israelis’ patriotic sentiments, but also a sort of apathy for the Israelis who would go out and defend the Jews living in Israel from external threats. This week, a protest camp has been set up outside the Knesset called “The Suckers’ Tent,” referring to the apparent position of people who must enter the army and not enjoy both exemption and simultaneous financial benefits for attending Yeshivas.
The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in February. The law was supposed to create a framework where Yeshiva students would go to school and then decide between limited forms of military service or non-military national service. In practice, students have been able to indefinitely postpone doing either.
In the early 70s, the amount of army-eligible males taking the exemptions was negligible. That number increased steadily as the community became more entrenched and even moved steadily more right. Today, the projected growth of the Ultra Orthodox population, combined with the rising proportion in number of exemptions, has the issue pushing Israel toward dissolving the current governing coalition and launching early elections. How likely the elections are is actually a question though, since most members of non-Orthodox political parties want the Tal Law or anything that allows massive exemptions from national service to be dissolved.
Israel has many political parties that break down along ethnic and religious lines, as well as political philosophy. Kadima seems to be the largest left-wing party while Likud is the largest to the right. But National Union & HaBayit HaYehudi are religious, pro-Zionist parties. Shas and United Torah Judaism are Ultra Orthodox parties. Hadash and the United Arab List are Arab parties. It is Shas we would think has the clout to create a new election cycle, but in fact it is the radically secular Yisrael Beitenu that is threatening pulling out of the government if its version of a reformed law doesn’t pass the Knesset. Their version would require universal national service, whether in the army or in some designated alternative.
Yisrael Beitenu and Shas are both members of the governing coalition, more because they have similar outlooks on security more than on social issues. Negotiating between the two parties would force Likud and Benjamin Netanyahu into an uncomfortable mediating position that would either end in nothing or essentially rehash the compromises that are so unpopular and deemed illegal today.
Israeli politicians aren’t often creative thinkers so much as they are overly pragmatic and businessmen. Even though most countries’ parliaments and congresses would respond to such a Supreme Court ruling in the same way – rehashing the old law in a new format and with new language – in Israel the status quo is extremely tough to break. The culture created by the military exemptions has created other social and education problems seemingly unconnected to the IDF service issue. For one, the quality of Ultra Orthodox Yeshiva students is diminishing. In a classic case of quantity versus quality. As one might expect slackers to take advantage of some individuals’ ideological reasons for wanting military exemption, indeed there are underachievers occupying the halls of the seminaries. Many servicemen would consider those few Ultra Orthodox who have entered the military to be of that stock, mostly because their own Yeshivas’ administrators have kicked them out of the seminaries for behavior or laziness. In my mind, expanding the mechanism where Religious Zionist students split time between Yeshivas and the military would be part of if not much of where the answer lies. But it would serve the Ultra Orthodox to have students split time between studying and serving, enabling the brightest students to continue their studies toward inevitable Rabbinical positions.
Secular Israel & College Students
The other side of the issue concerns secular Israelis. While Yeshiva students get stipends to attend their seminaries, non-religious or religious university students are not given the same treatment. University tuition is extremely low compared to the United States, but students still struggle to find sufficient work and pay with such hectic class schedules. I, myself, have had to turn down full time job offers because I cannot meet their desired amount of hours while in school and am working two part time jobs right now. Last year, there were protests by students in the middle of Jerusalem demanding equal treatment by the government, recognizing their academic endeavors.
It’s that demand for equality under the law driving many of the protests by civic engagement groups and individuals. Ultimately, ideology has taken a backseat to the politics of patronage where a bureaucratic normality has taken hold. It will take a sincere and daring effort to undermine that bureaucracy and force a demographic to be more involved in the services of the government.
Other issues I haven’t covered involve the behavior of people in the army. Religious Zionist Jews, who want to serve in the army, have developed their own units and the Hesder program mentioned above (combining Yeshiva learning with military service), in order to answer issues of men & women having increased contact and avoiding the apparent immaturity (sex & other concerns) or secularism of young soldiers in other units. Ultra Orthodox raise these concerns as well on the oft-cited list of reasons to avoid the IDF.