The Tal Law was implemented in 2002, and aimed to attract greater numbers of Chareidim to the armed forces, while still allowing for exemptions if desired. Chareidim infrequently participate in the IDF, and this has emerged as a continuing source of friction between the observant and their more secular counterparts in Israel in recent years. Installed to satisfy religious demands while encouraging military participation, the Tal Law proved largely unsuccessful during its ten year existence, critics said, and the High Court of Justice cited this point in its decision this past week.
“Apart from a certain improvement in the implementation of the law, one cannot say that the law’s means achieved their goals, and it seems that certain blocs influence its potential to be fully fulfilled,” wrote High Court President Dorit Beinisch in her opinion. “That being the case, one cannot but determine that the law is unconstitutional …. Originally the legislation harbored the hope that the law would launch a social process that without coercion would encourage ultra-Orthodox people to serve in the military or take part in national civil service. These hopes were dashed.”
The decision by the Court has come at a time when Israel has become increasingly torn by religious tensions. Instances of extremism in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh incited violence and protests from Israelis on both sides of the religious aisle recently, and the Tal Law has redoubled controversy as it has targeted one of the subjects of greatest contention among Israelis. In response to the Court’s verdict, Chareidim scarcely shared their views, but what little has been said suggests they will show few signs of letting up in the face of the latest declaration.
“We have no existence without Torah. We will give our lives for it,” said Knesset member Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) following a conference in Bnai Brak. Statements made by ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students have echoed this sentiment, revealing how some Chareidim view enlistment as an existential peril.
“The entire Haredi ideology is built on that,” said one student, who asserted he would die rather than join the armed forces in an interview with Haaretz. “If you don’t enable [not serving], you’ve converted us.”
This feeling was captured in a series of statements made by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, a famed Chareidi leader who portrayed the ban on the Tal Law as a legitimate threat to observant Jews.
“A terrible edict has fallen upon us and seeks to damage the heart of Jewry. There are those who, G-d forbid, seek to draft Yeshiva students, but this will not be,” he said. The rabbis highlighted the precedent left by his predecessors, who “have called [conscription] an attempt to destroy our religion.”
“This is something that we are commanded to lay down lives down for. May G-d change the intentions of all those involved to a positive direction, that they should not seek to harm the existence of Torah and Judaism,” he added.
With secular encroachment posed as a domestic threat, and Iran looming as a possible nuclear-crazed enemy, some Chareidim have become ever more fearful of what lies on the horizon.
“May G-d save us and preserve us from all those who plot against us, from all the evil nations who seek to destroy us, and bring our final redemption,” Rabbi Auerbach concluded.
Others among the ultra-Orthodox sector have dismissed the latest verdict as a political stunt and contend little will change following the removal of the Tal Law. The consensus seems to be that the Knesset will restore the law to the Chareidim in a different form.
“A tweak here, a tweak there,” a senior ultra-Orthodox politician told Haaretz. “Nobody is thinking of forcing yeshiva students to do military service. The only alternative to the Tal Law is Tal Law 2, mainly increasing the incentives for those who choose to join the army or do national service.”
Chareidi students seemed equally confident. “The Haredi MKs will have to find a solution,” one explained. “In any case, the authorities cannot put 70,000 people in prison for not enlisting to the army. So we’re calm.”
In the event that the government takes a harsher stance on the lack of Chareidi military participation, students stressed their yeshivas would make extensive efforts to ensure the survival of their institutions and way of life.
“We’ll need our MKs to deal with that,” one said, referencing the possible financial costs the yeshivas might incur if they refuse to turn their students in to the IDF in the future. “It will be difficult, but we’ll manage. We’ll eat less in the dining room and the yeshiva heads will have to go abroad more to raise money.”