By Nehemia Shtrasler, Haaretz Correspondent
The army is proposing a replacement to the Tal Law to try to encourage more students in ultra-Orthodox yeshivas to join the Israel Defense Forces. The program, the brainchild of Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, calls for permitting every Haredi man to join the army, enter the workforce or study upon turning 18.
The IDF's disappointment with the Tal Law, introduced in January 2003, triggered the new plan. Only 353 ultra-Orthodox youths joined the army in the four-plus years since it was passed, although there are 50,000 draft-age students at Haredi yeshivas.
The proposal was submitted recently to Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who submitted it to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who expressed support.
The proposal calls for a nine-year initial trial period. Any young man who graduates from a Haredi school at the age of 18 would be eligible. Stern believes the favorable terms offered by the program would significantly increase the number of Haredi youths who join the army, as well as the number of Haredim who choose to join the workforce.
The underlying assumption is that as significant numbers of young ultra-Orthodox men venture outside the yeshiva world, the walls will begin to crack: They will see a different way of life, their quality of life will improve as they work, and the poverty that plagues the Haredim will diminish.
According to Stern, only 30 percent of the students in Haredi yeshivas are genuinely suited to these studies; the remainder stay, at least in part, to avoid military service.
If the proposal is passed into law and is successful, only half of Haredi men over 18 will continue full-time yeshiva studies. The other half would turn to the army, higher education or the labor market, saving the state enormous amounts of money. The economy will grow and the IDF will have more people available to it. Stern is also proposing that some of the money saved be earmarked to provide free university tuition to IDF veterans.
It should be noted that 11 percent of the 2007 IDF pool of male recruits did not join the army because they are Haredi. Of all children who entered first grade last September, 23 percent were Haredim, meaning that in 12 years at least 23 percent of the population will not serve in the IDF. In practice, the figure will be even higher, since shortly before callup some religious Zionist teens enroll in Haredi yeshivas to evade service.
In contrast to both conventional wisdom and the beliefs of Judge Zvi Tal at the time of the committee he headed, the IDF wants to recruit Haredim. There is a Haredi Nahal force, but its numbers do not even suffice for a single battalion. The IDF is lacking personnel in areas such as combat support and logistics. In addition, Stern says, he wants soldiers in compulsory service to replace reserve soldiers in all operational activities and for reserve soldiers to do training only. For that to happen, the ranks of the regular army must expand.
Stern says he is willing to ensure that Haredi soldiers are provided with appropriate conditions, including food at a kashruth standard that is acceptable to them and even by issuing military orders requiring them to pray. He is willing to create a separate framework for these soldiers, even though it conflicts with his own worldview. In this framework, women would be completely out of the picture.
Stern believes that one of the problems with the Tal Law is that it allows Haredi men to decide whether to join the army not at age 18, but at 22, when they are likely to already be married with children and accustomed to living off the state.