Reports heard by the Knesset subcommittee overseeing the implementation of the Tal Law indicate that, for the first time, there may actually be a light at the end of the tunnel of evasions. After a decade in which the army, Finance Ministry and the ultra-Orthodox community made every effort to torpedo the Tal Law - which exempts full-time yeshiva students from the military draft - it seems a breakthrough has finally been made. Nearly 2,000 Haredim performed military or civil national service last year, 2.5 times the number the previous year before and five times that of two years ago.
More than 1,000 Haredim enlisted in national service last year, proving it was a mistake to cancel the creation of a national service administration in the five-year period ending 18 months ago. Last year more than 800 Haredim were drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, most joining new "Haredi service" tracks which guide them into professions that can serve them later on either in civilian life or in the professional army.
Most of these recruits joined the Netzah Yehuda infantry battalion, on a track that also allows them to complete their education.
The enlistment figures are significant in that today, one of every 100 Haredim of army age signs up for national or military service. They are a significant presence in Haredi society, giving rise to the possibility that national service is approaching the threshold of legitimacy in the community, and that the taboo against military service is breaking down as well.
If this is the case, it seems the military has found the right formula for allowing a considerable number of yeshiva students into its ranks. For this feat it deserves every accolade - even if it may seem strange that it's the army which is demonstrating more creativity than every other state institution in fulfilling this national mission.
And yet, the situation is far from satisfactory. The number of ultra-Orthodox who serve is equal to just one third of the yeshiva students receiving army exemptions annually (5,500). Graver still, those serving represent just 3.5 percent of the 55,000 yeshiva students registered to indefinitely defer their service. In other words, though progress is being made, it remains just a drop in the sea of draft evasion.
The subcommittee discovered another problem: 80 percent of those committed to civilian service serve in Haredi welfare agencies, not in emergency or security-related organizations. National service was not intended as yet another way to fund ultra-Orthodox groups; in this respect urgent change is needed.
Ultimately, the greatest challenge on the horizon is the IDF's forecast that in 2019, one quarter of the enlistment class - 13,000 people - will choose to defer military service. To address this overwhelming demographic growth and the consequent wave of army evasion, both the IDF and the national civil service will have to greatly broaden the scope of roles in which the ultra-Orthodox serve, and quickly.
Hundreds of new positions should be created for the ultra-Orthodox - for example, with firefighting crews, paramedics, hospitals and the police. At one of the subcommittee's meetings three months ago, retired Supreme Court justice Zvi Tal recommended that a new hesder track specifically for Haredim (allowing yeshiva students to complete partial military service) be opened - which would combine religious studies with military service. It is an idea which should be carefully considered.
Granting child allowances and yeshiva funding, which encourage Haredim to evade military service and to avoid joining the workforce, must stop. Instead, investment should be made in professional training and academic enrichment among the ultra-Orthodox, and in the creation of jobs for them.
It should be made clear to every Haredi teenager that national or military service pays off, that it leads to being able to earn a good and respectable livelihood. There is no better investment for strengthening the Israeli economy.
The writer is vice president of research and information for Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality.
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