In a historic ruling, the High Court of Justice on Tuesday abolished the Tal Law, which was drafted to encourage young ultra-Orthodox men to voluntarily enlist in the Israel Defense Forces but in reality allowed tens of thousands to dodge military service. In a majority ruling, of six to three, the panel of judges headed by outgoing Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch ruled that the law is unconstitutional and cannot be extended in its current form.
The Knesset ratified the Tal Law in 2002 in an effort to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the IDF or for national service, while exempting those who choose to study Torah full-time. It was established to address the imbalance in sharing the burden of army service in Israel, but the court ruled that the law, in fact, perpetuates inequality. The High Court ruled that the law will expire on Aug. 1 of this year. If the Knesset doesn’t pass a law to replace it by that date, young haredim (ultra-Orthodox men) will be required to enlist in the IDF.
Incoming Chief Justice Asher Grunis, who opposed abolishing the law and was in the minority ruling, wrote that in reality the mass enlistment of haredim is unlikely to happen. Another seemingly more realistic plan, wrote Grunis, was for the Knesset to draft another version that repairs the existing law’s flaws and resolves the issue of exemptions.
“It’s an illusion to expect that judicial findings will lead to the enlistment of haredim in the IDF and to their assimilation into the workforce,” Grunis said. He went on to say that there was no justification for overruling a Knesset law in which the majority grants the minority a privilege.
The High Court’s verdict effectively accepts a string of appeals submitted in 2007 against the Knesset’s decision to extend the Tal Law for another five years. Over the years, the court has repeatedly discussed the appeals and has also examined the enlistment rate of haredim to the IDF. Among those who have filed appeals with the High Court are Maj. (ret.) Yehuda Ressler, attorney Itai Ben-Horin, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, former MKs Avraham Poraz (Hetz), Yossi Beilin (Meretz), Haim Oron (Meretz) and Avshalom Vilan (Meretz).
In 2005 the state admitted that the law was a failure, because only a few dozen haredi men had elected to enlist in the IDF. Recent data has shown that 45,000 ultra-Orthodox Israelis shirked their army or national service duties in 2005, and by 2010 that number was up to 61,000.
About a year after the state’s admission, a court ruled that the Tal Law contradicted the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, meant to protect human rights in Israel, and impinges on the rights of those who do serve. Despite all this, however, the law was extended for a year and a half to further examine it. An additional year-and-a-half extension was then granted, followed by the five-year extension that will end Aug. 1.
Beinisch emphasized that “at the core of the [Tal] Law’s creation was the hope it would lead to a social process in which – even without being required by law – haredim would choose to serve in the army or national civil service. However, the hopes pinned on the law were never realized.”
Those in the majority opinion included justices Miriam Naor, Elyakim Rubinstein, Esther Hayut, Hanan Melcer and Neal Hendel. The dissenters included Grunis, Eliezer Rivlin and Edna Arbel.
Beinisch pointed out that an analysis of the numbers is proof that the law failed. For example, in 2010, only 600 haredi men chose to enlist via one of the specialized army programs the IDF was required by law to create. “More haredim choose the ‘Torah study as profession’ path over the army or national service path,” Beinisch said.
Justice Elyakim Rubinstein said, “The situation in which a blanket exemption from military service is granted to an increasingly large sector disproportionately impedes on the rights of Israeli citizens who are required to serve in the army and do so.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the dramatic decision, saying, “As I had already announced prior to the High Court’s decision, the Tal Law in its current form will not continue to exist. In the coming months we will draft a new law that will bring about a just change in the sharing of the burden for all sectors of Israeli society.”
Netanyahu made an announcement in late January about drafting a law to replace the Tal Law, following a meeting in the Knesset with IDF reservists who oppose extending it.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “The Tal Law, after 10 years, did not meet expectations and didn’t lead to the required change in regards to equality and expanding the circle of those fulfilling civic obligations.” Barak said a new law must be drafted quickly in order to ensure that the civic burden is shared equally by Israelis.
According to a proposal by the defense minister, a quota would be set for 2,000-3,000 “Torah prodigies” who would be exempt from service based on the “Torah study as profession” principle. All the rest will join the national service and then the workforce.
Meanwhile, an umbrella organization consisting of 40 social justice groups who have opposed the Tal Law proposed a law of its own on Wednesday. According to the proposal, within fiver years every citizen that reaches 18 years of age will be required by law to serve either in the military, national or civil service. Similar to Barak's proposal, a quota for Torah prodigies who can be exempt will be fixed. The state would also provide bonuses for those who do military service. The bonuses will be based on the length and type of service one chooses to do. The group also suggests creating a civil service authority which would be under the auspices of the prime minister, who would be responsible for implementing the law and making sure it was being enforced.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel praised the High Court’s decision, saying, “A day that sees the abolishment of a law that discriminates between citizens is a day of celebration for the state of Israel as a Jewish-democratic state, and an important day for people in Israel.”
Netanyahu’s top religious coalition partner says Israel’s government won’t be shaken by the law’s annulment.
A representative for ultra-Orthodox Shas said Wednesday the party is confident yeshiva students would continue to pursue religious studies instead of serving, adding that officials will be able to draft a new military exemption deal that would meet the court’s standards.
Tuesday’s court ruling raised concerns of a coalition crisis but Shas spokesman Yakov Betzalel said he doesn’t “see it in the offing.”
The Tal Law, ironically, was initially created because of a High Court ruling that it was not within the defense minister’s rights to determine a blanket policy of military exemptions for yeshiva students. As a result, Ehud Barak, who was prime minister and defense minster at the time (1999), ordered the formation of a committee, headed by retired judge Tzvi Tal, to examine the matter and suggest proposals to the Knesset.