The enactment of the Tal Law is proceeding much more quietly than it used to. Perhaps this derives from the weariness of the secular public, which has learned to accept everything, even the yeshiva students' exemption from military service. Perhaps it derives from the growing approval for draft-dodging even among secular elites. Or maybe the secular voter, who decided to punish Shinui and throw it out of the Knesset, has also punished himself, leaving his camp with no representation. Perhaps it is due to all of the above.
In recent weeks the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has debated the cabinet's decision to extend the validity of the Tal Law by five whole years. The cabinet's decision was adopted, although the five previous years were wasted and nothing was done during this time to enforce the law.
When the Tal Law was enacted it had many supporters, who saw the arrangement to exempt yeshiva students from military service as scandalous and discriminatory. They believed that if married and unmarried ultra-Orthodox men were given a fair way to leave the yeshiva and enlist to the army or national service, many of them would do so, thinking that at least some of them would find work after their service and find their place in the Israeli economy.
Five years went by and it transpired that a coalition of four had been formed to sabotage the law: the treasury, which did not allocate funds to institute the national service; the Israel Defense Forces, which insisted that the married ultra-Orthodox men serve deterrently long periods; the ultra-Orthodox establishment, which made no effort to advise the students of the options the Tal Law had opened to them; and the Knesset, which, once having passed the law, did not bother to supervise its enforcement.
The damage caused during these five wasted years is considerable. In 2004, two years after the enactment of the Tal Law, the arrangement enabling yeshiva students to study rather than serve in the army encompassed some 40,000. Today it encompasses some 50,000 of them and at the end of the decade they will be 60,000 - equal to one and a half the number of recruits who are enlisted in regular drafts every four months.
The following figures are even more troubling: Twelve years ago the number of ultra-Orthodox first-graders comprised some 10 percent of the Jewish education system. Now that these children have turned 18, those who are exempt from military service comprise 10 percent of the recruits drafted every four months.
Last year, ultra-Orthodox first-graders comprised 23 percent of their age group in the Jewish education system. This means that as 2020 approaches more than a fifth - one out of five men - will be exempt from military service because of yeshiva studies.
Can the country afford this? And what about the IDF? It's no longer a mere question of morality and discrimination, it's a matter of national survival.
The Tal Law is based, among other things, on the assumption that it is unreasonable and improper to forcibly enlist the ultra-Orthodox. In a few years this assumption may be rendered irrelevant. There will be so many of them that it will be impossible not to draft them forcibly. The rupture such a move will cause in society would be greater than the one caused by the disengagement.
We must also remember that the lull in the public controversy on the yeshiva students' draft is temporary. Sooner or later this controversy will flare up again with all its might. When it does, the secular public's criticism of the need to protect the ultra-Orthodox settlements will increase. It is doubtful whether anyone wants to arrive at this situation.
The Tal Law must be extended by two years, and not a day longer. This will exert pressure on everyone - the Prime Minister's Office, the treasury, army and yeshiva heads - to prove that the law is working. If in two years' time a significant number of yeshiva students leave their studies and serve either military or national service, it will be possible the extend the law by two more years. The extension of the Tal Law by five years means that the Knesset and the ministries will have forgotten it by 2012. That will be outrageously irresponsible and will resemble the start, or rather the continuation, of a historic blunder.
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