The Tal Law Blunder

There is no practical possibility of conscripting yeshiva students by coercion. The subsequent social rift would be too great, and the army would not benefit from such conscripts.

Here is a word of advice for former judges and public figures who are asked to head public committees: Before responding in the affirmative, ask to meet with retired justice Zvi Tal. You will be able to hear from him how, during four and a half years, the Finance Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces thwarted the Tal Commission's recommendations, and no one cared and no one took them to task.

If you still have not lost your desire to head a committee, to hear testimony for months on end, to persevere in gathering material, to invest effort, to negotiate, to mediate and to compromise and to write a long report, don't say no one warned you. Chances are your report, too, will be buried deep in the bottomless drawer of committee reports, from which there is no escape.

The Tal Commission proposed a way that young ultra-Orthodox men could leave the yeshiva for the workforce. This path included a year for making decisions at age 22, during which the yeshiva student could work or study and become accustomed to life outside the yeshiva. At the year's end, the students are supposed to do a shortened form of military or national service.

True, this was an extremely problematic compromise; and even former justice Tal said it was not fair. But it was nevertheless essential. There is no practical possibility of conscripting yeshiva students by coercion. The subsequent social rift would be too great, and the army would not benefit from such conscripts. Therefore, by default, it is preferable to make do with a short service, military or civilian, and to make it possible at least for the ultra-Orthodox to enter the workforce.

In reality, the army demanded the yeshiva students do prolonged service, despite their advanced age, and this led to many of them preferring to return to the yeshiva. The treasury refused to fund the civilian service. The two factors together acted as jail wardens, forcing the yeshiva students to remain at their studies.

The politicians also cannot be excused from blame. Because that is how our politicians are - they will never deal with a problem today that can be put off for another five years. From the minute the Tal Law was passed, the system went into slumber mode. The repression was so deep it must be asked whether the legal and political system possibly might have forgotten that the law has to be extended, had the fact not been published yesterday in Haaretz.

The lost years were one big missed opportunity. Even if only a thousand yeshiva students had done some significant military or civilian service during this period, it would have created a social change and a different atmosphere among the ultra-Orthodox public. Therefore, the Tal Law affair is a blunder, one worth probing by the state comptroller, and Justice Tal should call for such an investigation.

Coalition MKs will soon face the following dilemma: On the one hand, they will want to prevent Shas from leaving the government and the coalition from disintegrating as a result of the vote for extending the Tal Law; after all, Shas cannot allow itself to leave the yeshiva students without a law to protect them from being conscripted. On the other hand, even a strong pill against nausea will not help in a vote on behalf of extending the law after it has been trampled on and debased for four and a half years.

There is also a good chance the High Court of Justice will invalidate the law. The justices have already said that if the law was not applied before five years are up, it could become unconstitutional. That is why a proposal has been brought before the Knesset to extend the validity of the Tal Law only under the following conditions:

The law will be extended for one year only, so it will be possible to follow its application. If there is a way to persuade the High Court not to invalidate the new law, it is only a very short extension. The Knesset Finance Committee will simultaneously approve a budget for 500 positions in civilian service. The defense minister will commit himself from the Knesset plenum to permitting yeshiva students to do a shortened service.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the ultra-Orthodox Torah sages have also done nothing to see the law applied. To this day, there are numerous yeshiva students who are not even aware of the Tal option. The ultra-Orthodox leaders must understand that if they do not take steps to promote the law, the solutions that will replace it will be much more difficult - for example, the quota system will again come up and will gain popularity.

The claims that there are people in North Tel Aviv who also avoid military service will not help. The truth is that some 95 percent of the ultra-Orthodox do no significant military service, while among the secular, there are only a handful (even if they stand out) who avoid it, and this is severe discrimination between one person's blood and another's.

Therefore, anyone who does not wish once again to open up the deep rift between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular over the conscription of yeshiva students must seek a real solution. Another attempt to anesthetize this deep and painful wound will not work.