The Lead Isn't Always Cast

It is not the Tal Law, which regulates the exemption of ultra-Orthodox seminary students, that the High Court of Justice needs to scrap, but its five-year extension, which is disproportionate and unreasonable.

The fighting in Gaza has diverted attention from the very disturbing figures that the state gave the High Court of Justice in its reply to the petition opposing the extention of the Tal Law on military service for the ultra-Orthodox.

In its response to the petition - which was filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel along with former Knesset member Avraham Poraz, MK Ran Cohen and attorney Yehuda Rassler - the state said that one out of seven male candidates for military service is exempt to attend a religious seminary, comprising 14 percent of each draft.

In 2000, that ratio was one exemption per every 11 candidates - only 9.5 percent of the draft. The number of all exemptions of all ages is currently about 53,000 compared with only 30,000 in 1999.

The fact that the data were released even as the Israel Defense Forces were fighting Hamas sheds a particularly harsh light on the figures. The worsening discrimination here is between two groups, one of which is required to spill its blood. For its part, the ultra-religious public is determined that its children should not fight to defend the State of Israel.

One of the reasons that criticism of the ultra-Orthodox has subsided in recent years is that many of the IDF's operations have become controversial. But Operation Cast Lead enjoys a very broad consensus among the people, most of whom feel that it's a war that must be fought.

Admittedly, the state's response contains encouraging data as well. Nearly 500 religious seminary students, single and married, are currently performing non-military national service. One year after the state founded the Civil Service Administration, its achievements surpass its projections (200 ultra-Orthodox seminary students in 2008) by more than 100 percent.

Several hundred ultra-Orthodox teens enlist every year to courses the IDF has set up for them: the Haredi Nahal infantry course, the technical course for Haredi soldiers and the Israel Air Force computer course. An Intelligence Corps course is also in the works. But the change is too slow and the number of participants too small.

Over the past few years, some people have argued that draft-dodging by the sons of secular elites is equal, in terms of volume, to non-service by ultra-Orthodox candidates. It is a baseless claim. Less than 5 percent of male candidates are exempt for mental reasons. At least some of them are genuinely incapable of serving.

If we accept the very generous estimate that non-Haredi draft-dodging accounts for 3 percent of every class, then one in every 27 non-Haredi candidates for military service is a draft-dodger.

And if we accept the far-reaching estimate that about 1,000 ultra-Orthodox teens are performing national civilian service, then four out of five Haredis are full draft-dodgers. One out of five is a partial draft-dodger and 200 or maybe 300 ultra-Orthodox are enlisted to perform full military service every year.

Eighteen months ago the Knesset extended the Tal Law, which regulates the exemption of ultra-Orthodox seminary students, by five additional years. While allowing the continued postponement of service for seminary students, it also creates a process that helps them enter the job market.

As of age 22 they are afforded "a year of deliberation," an adjustment period of sorts, during which they are not conscripted. At the end of that year they can either enter the army or a civilian service program for an abbreviated service period, or return to the seminary to complete their studies.

It bears repeating that even the members of the Tal Committee conceded that while this clause may be required, it is unjust and does not adhere to the principles of equality.

In the first five years after the Tal Law was passed, it wasn't implemented at all and the civilian service program was not even initiated. The decision to implement it, whose fruits we are now seeing, stems solely from fear of a filing of hostile petitions to the High Court of Justice and the need to re-extend the law.

It took quite a bit of nerve to extend the law by five years - the maximum extension period permissible. Five years is long enough for the Knesset to forget about the problem while it is allowed to worsen.

A law so unjust, so twisted, needs to reviewed by the Knesset and perhaps by the High Court of Justice as well, and state its case every year anew. Therefore, it is not the Tal Law that the High Court of Justice needs to scrap, but its five-year extension, which is disproportionate and unreasonable.