The Tal Law, which legally exempts full-time yeshiva students from serving in the Israel Defense Forces, is set to expire next month. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling to hammer out a replacement that both the ultra-religious and secular sectors can find agreeable. This could not be the scenario that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion envisioned when he exempted 400 ultra-orthodox men from army service upon the State of Israel’s founding in 1948 and Israel now finds itself debating how to balance its Jewish and democratic character.
The Plesner committee, headed by Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, was tasked with devising a replacement for the Tal Law. On July 4, it released its recommendations: universal service should be imposed upon all Israeli citizens, including haredim and eventually Arab Israelis. More specifically, the committee recommended that the number of exemptions for the ultra-religious be reduced to 1,500, with the goal of 80% of haredi population serving in the IDF or national service by 2016. Those who try to evade the draft will be criminally sanctioned.
Ultra-orthodox men walking out of an Israeli Army recruiting office. (Photo: Zvika Tishler)
The process of changing the national conscription policy has been controversial. Haredim insist that there is no higher expression of Jewishness than Torah study, claiming that Torah study is the spiritual defense of Israel, on par with army service. The Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel suggested that observant Jews were being persecuted. Secularists, meanwhile, believe that all citizens should equally share the defense burden. In Tel Aviv last Saturday, thousands of Israelis protested in demand for universal service.
The two major parties in the Israeli governing coalition, Likud and Kadima, aimed to come to an agreement and present a finalized universal draft law on Wednesday. However, talks came to a standstill as they failed to resolve certain disagreements. Kadima demands quotas for haredi service, while Likud merely wants to set targets and says that Kadima’s hard line will prevent the coalition from making any inroads on the issue and will start a civil war. Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz has warned Netanyahu that if a new universal draft law is not presented by Sunday, his party will quit the coalition. On Thursday, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said it is unlikely that a universal draft law will be legislated by that deadline.
Over the next two decades, the proportion of working-age haredim to total working-age population in Israel is expected to double, the proportion of secularists is expected to shrink drastically, while the proportion of Arabs will grow moderately. Given these demographic projections, the controversial debate surrounding compulsory service in the IDF will not likely dissipate any time soon.