Today, Israel struggles to reverse a deeply entrenched system of unequal conscription into its army.
Shortly after Israel’s birth in 1948, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion granted 400 ultra-Orthodox Jewish men exemption from Israel’s compulsory military service so that they could study full-time in yeshivas (Jewish seminary schools). The pragmatic leader had sought the political support of influential rabbis who were determined to revive a tradition of Torah study, nearly obliterated during the Holocaust. It seemed an unremarkable concession at the time.
Then, in 2002, during one of the bloodiest periods of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising), the Israeli Knesset passed the controversial “Tal Law,” legalizing such military exemptions and stipulating the ways in which yeshiva students could receive draft deferrals until the age of 22 and beyond, as long as they remained in the yeshivas.
Though not enshrined into law before 2002, the yeshiva student exemptions had gradually become the status-quo over the years.
Ironically, the legislation was drafted with intention to tackle the issue and, according to former Chief Israeli Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch, “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.”
Under the new law, yeshiva students were given the option of a relatively short four-month enlistment with additional reserve duties, or a year of civilian service (non-military service) upon the age of 22.
In the end, only a very few ultra-Orthodox enlisted, and the Tal Law was regarded as a resounding failure.
Fast forward to today, and the ranks of the ultra-Orthodox claiming exemption for purposes of religious study have swelled to around 60,000.
Moreover, Israel’s Arab minority – constituting roughly 20% of the population – are permitted, though not required, to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Most Israeli-Arabs have chosen not to serve in the IDF, in part, because of uneasiness taking up arms against their brethren in the occupied Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab countries.
Barring these exceptions, two to three years of service is compulsory for Jewish, Druze, and Circassian men, as well as Jewish women upon the age of 18.
Why is the Tal Law Relevant?
The Tal Law, which expired at the first of the month, was ruled unconstitutional in February by Israel’s Supreme Court on grounds of discrimination. The Knesset failed to pass a new law in its place before the summer recess, meaning that in theory draft-age ultra-Orthodox Jews are eligible for military conscription.
Israel’s defense establishment must now revert to the 1986 Defense Service Law, which allows no special exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.
In the midst of popular anger and disagreement over the future of the draft, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has given the IDF until the end of the month to draw up plans for ultra-Orthodox conscription, although it is not clear to what extent the military intends to implement such plans.
Exemptions for Israeli-Arab citizens will remain in place in the interim period and beyond, unless a replacement for the Tal Law seeks to change the status quo.