Ultra-Orthodox reactions to a High Court of Justice ruling overturning the Tal Law, which exempts tens of thousands of yeshiva students from military service, ranged yesterday from utter indifference to prophecies of Armageddon.
The High Court ruled on Tuesday that the law, which allows full-time yeshiva students to defer army service, is unconstitutional, and the Knesset will not be able to renew it in its present form when it expires in August. The law went into effect 10 years ago.
Students at Jerusalem's Hebron Yeshiva, where more than 1,000 men of draft age (18 to 24 ) are enrolled, seemed unfazed by the ruling, as did students at other yeshivas. At Hebron, some students did not even know of the High Court's ruling until told by this reporter; others didn't know exactly what the Tal Law was.
On being informed, some said they rely on their Father in Heaven, along with their ultra-Orthodox Knesset members, to concoct a new law to replace the old one.
More importantly, however, they were confident that the state is neither willing nor able to draft masses of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) men into the Israel Defense Forces. It would certainly not throw ultra-Orthodox draft-dodgers into prison, said one: "The state would collapse in that situation."
Outside the Haredi world, many people felt the ruling heralded a revolution, and perhaps even envisioned divisions of ultra-Orthodox men marching to join the army. But the yeshiva students are convinced that, in the words of Ecclesiastes, there will be nothing new under the sun.
MKs from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party declined to give media interviews yesterday, perhaps fearing their statements could only do harm. But off the record, some Haredi politicians said they relied on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hammer out a new arrangement to perpetuate the existing situation, in which any ultra-Orthodox man can choose to go to yeshiva rather than serving in the IDF.
Not everyone in the Haredi world is so sanguine, however: Some commentators predicted a battle, even a Kulturkampf.
Yaakov Rivlin, a commentator for the Haredi weekly Bakehila, offered several possible scenarios in a piece to be published today, including the Armageddon one, in which ultra-Orthodox men are forced into uniform.
"The force of the High Court's blow to the Haredi public is almost inconceivable," he wrote. "The justices' ruling is like the [UN] Security Council deciding that in six months, Israel must withdraw to the 1967 borders and evacuate all its residents to within the Green Line. If it doesn't, it will be subjected to strategic and economic sanctions that will destroy it."
A senior commentator for the Haredi weekly Mishpacha dismissed the Armageddon scenario, but nevertheless voiced concern.
"Nobody thinks that following Justice [Dorit] Beinisch's somewhat pathetic attempt to leave a mark on public life, tens of thousands of yeshiva students will be led to the recruitment centers," he wrote in an article for today's edition. "But it does raise concern on a symbolic level. The ruling means that in today's Israel, yeshiva students will not be able to study in peace ... and stand firm in Israel's spiritual defense."
The yeshiva students themselves said they would rather be killed than join the IDF. "The entire Haredi ideology is built on that," said one. "If you don't enable [not serving], you've converted us."
But they didn't consider it likely to happen.
A massive mobilization of Haredim "won't happen in any yeshiva," one student said.
"The Haredi MKs will have to find a solution," said another. "In any case, the authorities cannot put 70,000 people in prison for not enlisting to the army. So we're calm."
The most radical change they can imagine is tighter state supervision that would reduce the yeshivas' budgets overall and perhaps slash funds to those that violate the ground rules for the exemption.
"We'll need our MKs to deal with that," said one. "It will be difficult, but we'll manage. We'll eat less in the dining room and the yeshiva heads will have to go abroad more to raise money."
In an ideal situation, another said, more Haredim could be drafted. But issues such as soldiers being forced to listen to women sing, which some rabbis deem a violation of Jewish law, show that "the IDF doesn't want the ultra-Orthodox and won't give them suitable conditions."
A senior ultra-Orthodox politician also dismissed the horror scenarios: He is convinced a political solution will be found that involves only minor changes.
"A tweak here, a tweak there," he said. "Nobody is thinking of forcing yeshiva students to do military service. The only alternative to the Tal Law is Tal Law 2, mainly increasing the incentives for those who choose to join the army or do national service."
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