Cabinet Defers Tal Law Debate to Knesset

The government of Prime Minister Netanyahu decided to open the debate on the Tal Law to the full Knesset. Rabbi Melamed speaks his mind..

Gabe Kahn. ,

A Nahal Hareidi soldier
A Nahal Hareidi soldier
Courtesy of Nahal Hareidi

The cabinet has decided not to debate the proposed amendment to the Tal Law, which regulates the IDF exemption given to full time, non-hesder program yeshiva students.

Instead, the bill will be discussed openly by the entire Knesset ahead of the vote scheduled on its five-year extension.

The Tal Law, named for observant Supreme Court Judge Tzvi Tal (ret.) who headed the committee that drafted the law,  allows yeshiva students over the age of 22 to take a year off their studies in order to obtain professional training or work experience without being drafted.

After that year, they must commit to abbreviated army service, a full year of national service, or return to full-time Torah  studies. 

The law was passed by the Knesset in July 2002 and, in 2007, was extended by an additional five years. Until it became law, full time yeshiva students could not work at all without losing their exemption permanently, resulting in some older students working clandestinely to support growing families so as to avoid a long period of service when already a parent and impoverisihing many of those who remained in yeshiva full time. The law was drafted to encourage them to join the work force as well as fulfill army duty.

Many of the hareidi yeshivas were not happy that their students had the possibility of leaving the yeshiva now that they would not forego draft exemptions, and many in the secular population felt that the yeshiva students, most of them hareidi, were getting off too easily.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the head of a coalition that includes both hareidi and secular nationalist parties. Analysts say his decision to have the Tal Law debated by the whole Knesset is an attempt to divest himself of a political hot potato.

Meanwhile, a protest called the "suckers encampment" was erected by IDF reservists in Tel Aviv on Thursday morning over the proposed extension.

Repealing the Tal Law has become a cause celebre for secular politicans seeking to tap anti-hareidi sentiment among Israel's left-wing voters to score political points and gain votes. Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni and rival for Kadima party leadership, Avi Dichter, both visited the encampment on Thursday.

"Social justice begins with taking an equal share in the burden and serving in the military. National or civil service is the way in which every citizen needs to contribute to the society in which they live. When that is not the case, then Zionism doesn't exist either," Livni said.

"This shameful situation where there are people who do not enlist and who do not share the burden must be stopped. We need to progress to a situation where everyone who turns 18 – secular, haredi or Arab – enlists in the IDF.

"If they can't, then there are enough places like hospitals which are desperate for manpower and help. National service can be done in these places, thus serving the community,” she said.

For his part, Dichter said "We, the Zionist majority, have to make joint efforts and turn the clock back. The IDF must become a people’s army in fact – not an army of half the people,”

"We will force the prime minister to completely abolish the Tal Law," Dichter said. "This is the State of Israel and everyone should serve. Service in the IDF or national service. No difference between blood and blood. Some enlist and some do national service. But they all serve."

Critics of the push to annul the Tal Law note the IDF does not have a sufficiently robust program in place to integrate large numbers of hareidi men at one time. Such a framework - like the Hesder programs for religious Zionist men or brigades such as the Nahal Hareidi and religious vocational IDF programs such as Shachar Kachol- would have to be created before large numbers of hareidi men could succesfully enter the IDF.

Due to the extant framework for religious Zionist men, youth from those communities now enlist at a higher per capita rate than other segments of the population and are swelling the IDF officer corps. Last year it was reported roughly half of the IDF junior officer corps were religious.

Arutz Sheva turned to Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed shlita, head of the Beit El yeshiva, which has a stream for full time, non-hesder Torah study as well as other programs, for his opinion:

"It is hard to reconcile the latest actions by the IDF to prevent soldiers from adhering to halakhic stringencies (referring to the women singing controversy) with the voices calling for all the full time yeshiva students to serve for three years", he said. "How does the army expect them to want to enlist?" . 

"The Tal Law is a sensible way to change the present situation gradually by allowing these students to serve without forcing it on them and causing needless antagonism with Torah figures. Those hareidim who do enlist would not do so if it meant three years of service, so the country gains by the compromise. And we all know that the 'encampment' protest and its political support are short lived, and that the voices calling to abolish the yeshiva student deferments will not be heard as soon as coalition talks begin and they want the hareidi parties to support the government. 

"Forcing the issue in the short-term rather than working to accelerate positive trends over time is just political grandstanding rather than wise government". 

Those who support renewing the Tal Law for the present point to a growing trend of IDF service among hareidi men that signals a slow, but steady, shift towards engagement with Israeli's defense and their own economic needs.