The Tal Law may have been a realistic attempt to gradually wean the ultra-Orthodox community from the exemptions their yeshiva students have been enjoying since the early years of Israel’s existence. But we didn’t need the High Court of Justice to tell us that the equation “Torah study = military service” is wrong. The untenable inequality and hypocrisy of this premise resounds loud and clear to everyone except those who are hiding behind it to keep their young men out of the range of gunfire. It is especially offensive and hurtful in light of the painful equation “military service + fallen soldiers and bereaved families = independence and freedom in our sovereign state of Israel.” The Haredi sector cannot keep itself out of this equation forever.
The fabric of our society, woven with the memories of the young soldiers whose lives ended before they had a chance to live, will unravel if we do not put a stop to the carte blanche exemptions. It is no coincidence that the “suckers tent” was set up again just before Memorial Day. No matter how patriotic and motivated they may be, the young people who serve their country in the standing army and reserves cannot help thinking of themselves as “suckers” for going to the front lines, while their peers sit safely at their desks (in the yeshiva or at work). There can be no defense for sector-specific exemptions, nor any excuse for not enforcing universal national service, military or civilian. Israel cannot continue to exist under the present system with the heavy burden of defending our country being shouldered by some citizens, while others are let off scot-free.
In the climate of demands for social justice, the continuation of this epitome of injustice cannot be condoned.
But how do we go about changing this in the face of Haredi intransigence? Their entire society is built around the yeshivot, and the political and financial power they represent. And the ultra-Orthodox parties’ inflexibility is understandable given the disproportional political power they wield. Because of it, they and their constituents have come to believe that “what has been will continue to be.” Can they now tell their yeshiva students, who have been enjoying exemptions for decades, who have been inculcated with the “Torah study is equal to or greater than military service” equation, that the times are changing?
Perhaps Netanyahu’s political math lesson will help them. Even if they didn’t study math in yeshiva, the arithmetic is simple. With a 94-member strong coalition, their parties are superfluous and they are no longer a threat to its stability. Their power has been cut like Samson’s hair.
Perhaps it’s time for the Haredi parties to realize that the general public can no longer tolerate universal exemptions for yeshiva students, as a recent poll has shown http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4220681,00.html and that compromise would be in their best interests. Despite the passionate cries for mandatory military service, discussions surrounding the substitute legislation for the Tal Law have also talked about encouraging a spirit of volunteerism, creating opportunities for non-military national service, and establishing a system of incentives to promote enlistment. If the Haredi parties could climb onto this bandwagon of good will, it would help avoid unnecessary confrontation, and make good political sense, too, given the simple arithmetic of their downsized political clout.
To help them climb down from their high horses, the ultra-Orthodox politicians could refer to the sages who taught that Dina d’malchuta dina. This phrase, repeated numerous times in the Talmud, means that there is no question that a Jew must obey the laws of the land in which they live. Even if they or their constituents do not recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s government, they have to obey its laws and one of them is universal national service. There can be no compromise here.
If we’re already going back to more ancient times, the Torah tells us about our ancestor’s many battles against their enemies. What would have happened to our nation if those eligible for the army had sat in the beit midrash and not heeded the call to arms of Deborah and her general Barak, for example? In fact the idea of carte blanche deferments for all those enrolled in yeshivas is something new. It certainly did not exist when my grandfather, a Gur Hasid, was a young man in Russian controlled Poland. He served in the Tzar’s army even though he was a Torah scholar. Dina d’malchuta dina.
Today’s Haredi politicians would also do well if they pointed out to their constituents that our sages worked for a living. They said: Derech eretz kadma la-Torah (literally “the way of the world,” or working for a living comes before Torah). Derech eretz has also come to mean being a respectful human being, so in short, this midah (virtue), too, comes before Torah study. Indeed, the Torah’s laws, boiled down, are meant to teach us how to behave fairly and justly in a diverse society. So evading army service and gainful employment go against the teachings of the Torah. Rabban Gamaliel summed it up in Pirke Avot (Mishnah Avot 2:2): … “Great is study of the Torah when combined with a worldly occupation, for toil in them both puts sin out of mind. All study of the Torah which is not supplemented by work is destined to prove futile and causes sin.”
I appeal to the ultra-Orthodox to engage in a reckoning today, a moral reckoning with our sages on the one hand and simple arithmetic on the other. Your power has been undercut. The “suckers” will not relent this time. Join the national equation. It can benefit us all. The battle lines are being drawn, but you can avert the war. Instead of using your power to fuel the flames, be responsible to yourselves and to the country in which you live. You have the power to defuse the entire issue by agreeing to compromise. And I ask you why not?