Last week the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision to nullify the Tal Law, which formally exempts yeshiva students from serving in the IDF. Though the law is formally just ten years old, it has been de facto practice since Israel’s earliest days, when Israel’s founders, desperately cobbling together a country as they fought off invading Arab armies, were forced to make crucial compromises to ensure survival.
Today, while Israel is thriving, the Tal Law has grown into a perilously weak link in our society. In 1949 the government provided just 400 exemptions to religious students. By 2010, the number had risen to 62,500. Meanwhile, enlistment rates are sagging while a disturbing anti-nationalist sentiment is flowering among the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) populations that makes use of the army exemption to keep itself insulated from greater Israeli society. At the same time, rancor among secular populations about the unjustness of the law is reaching a fever pitch.
While the High Court has struck down the law, a way forward must be found to replace it. Attempting a wholesale coercion of the Haredi students into the army will result in nothing but a powerful rejectionist attitude and a possible dangerous backlash.
Two initiatives could serve as a path toward enfranchising the Haredim in the wake of the recent decision. Importantly, both would require a spirit of reconciliation: among the secular, to recognize that Torah is a prime asset in a Jewish state; among the religious, an acceptance and assimilation of basic national obligations to the country that provides for its safety and liberty. These two initiatives could be conceptualized as the Immersion Track, on the one hand, and the Proportionality Track, on the other.
Based on existing programs like the Hesder program, which brings religious Israelis in the army, the Immersion Track would serve as a bridge for the observant demographic to enter the military. The immersion track would require Israel’s leadership to properly combine observance, study and service within the military experience in order to make service accessible for a substantial segment of the country’s population.
More then the ability for the IDF, as an institution adapt itself, the immersion track, demands that Middle Israel be willing to make room culturally for this population to find common cause. In tandem with these institutional shifts, a public relations campaign is integral for its success. The recruitment message should compel service through persuasion rather then law, so that the IDF’s adoption of an immersion track becomes proof of the nations commitment to reconcile rather then to coerce. In this way, the immersion track will not be considered a tactic to gain a foothold in Haredi neighborhoods, but rather, a middle path that can unite a historic people together in national service.
The second initiative is the Proportionality Track. This is a policy that would maintain the concept of immunity for Torah students by extending exemptions to only to a top tier of students in each yeshiva class. A merit-based system of this sort would allow the state to affirm the value of dedicated Torah study without falling into the injustice of wholesale exemption among the religious.
In an approach of this sort — which honors the contribution of Torah scholars as much as air force pilots — we can find common cultural ground for the religious and secular of Israel to begin a badly needed dialog for further reconciliation. But moreover, the approach demands a more rigorous academic structure on Israel’s religious education establishment. The common sense underlying this kind of proportionality, which recognizes the principle of exemption but limits its applicability, means both religious and secular can find reconciliation in a common aim.
While the issue of the Tal Law and its redress is crucially important, it is only one facet of the perennial question facing Israel, how Jewish the Jewish state should be. But despite this, the Tal Law is a unique expression of how high the stakes are for Israel — and from where solutions may come.
With a spirit of reconciliation that springs from the grassroots and extends to the power establishment — and not the other way round — we can find an enfranchisement policy that can peaceably shed the layers of institutionalized alienation that has plagued Israel for too long. Like other divisive policies that surround it, the Tal Law indeed needs to be not just repealed, but replaced with policies derived from an inclusive vision of Israeli nationhood that recognizes the essential bond that exists between faith and nationhood, between the Torah and the people of Israel.