In the beginning, prior to all the political scheming and legal scrutiny, there was a strong feeling among secular and national-religious Israelis that the ultra-Orthodox were hoodwinking them. Israelis who have been serving in the military for generations, along with their children, sons-in-law and grandchildren, were infuriated at seeing swarms of ultra-Orthodox descending on recruitment centers to receive exemptions. On top of that, these same haredim mocked the majority of Israelis, who do serve in the military and who pay for yeshiva students’ sustenance on the argument that Torah study is their profession. On Tuesday night, when the High Court read out its verdict, the average Israeli finally felt vindicated and like he might cease to be what he despises above all else: a sucker.
The need for this reform cried out to the heavens. In the beginning, David Ben-Gurion understood that something needed to be done to restore the glorious Torah world destroyed in the Holocaust. Secular and national-religious Jews believed that the ultra-Orthodox would realize they can’t shirk army service while taking money from the government, in total disregard of the Talmudic precept of “don’t rely on the charity of others.” In 2002, the public decided they wanted to give the ultra-Orthodox another fair chance with the Tal Law. But each time, the majority of the public were disappointed.
The haredim were insatiable. Since passage of the Tal Law, the number of draft dodgers rose from 30,000 to 70,000, even as they continued to grab money from the public till. Still, the High Court of Justice was in no hurry to hear petitions from the Movement for Quality Government, postponing the case year after year, until our national patience ran out.
Even the end game unfolded gradually. Convenience and routine led the government to try to extend the Tal Law by five years. Defense Minister Ehud Barak objected and demanded that it be extended by just a year. But it was too late. The High Court’s wheels of justice were turning, while the outcry of social justice protesters grew louder. It did not help the haredi cause that the rot of army evasion was discovered among secular Israelis as well. The spirit of the summer of 2011 tent protests began to waft through the halls of justice in Jerusalem. Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided against a five-year extension, and pledged to introduce a new bill by this August.
Tuesday night’s decision was dramatic. Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch’s verdict was a fitting finale for her judicial career. Reading the verdict, she was at her best, as if she had come full circle since her turbulent years as state prosecutor when she led the crusade for justice and equality.
Beinisch deserves our gratitude as do her colleagues High Court Justices Gil Hendel, Esther Hayut, Hanan Melcer, Miriam Naor and Elyakim Rubinstein. So does Eliad Shraga, head of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, who relentlessly petitioned the High Court, as does the Israeli Forum for Equal Service.
Will the High Court verdict cause elections to be moved up? There is no way to know. Netanyahu and Barak will both try to take credit for ending the era of draft dodging and discriminatory policies. The Likud’s newfound clout could help it rout not just Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beitenu) but political newcomer Yair Lapid and whoever ends up leading Kadima. But if he wants to reap rewards from this High Court decision, Netanyahu will have to praise it and the judges publicly, as well as support it wholeheartedly.