Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tal Law

Israel Continues to Politically Inspire

In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.

Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.

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In recent decades it became a common trope to bemoan Israel’s inability to inspire politically. As opposed to the state’s early decades of scrappy existence against long odds, the images of Israeli tanks staring down Arab rock-throwers supposedly denuded Israel’s capacity to arouse anything much other than discomfort.

Yesterday’s late night political drama at the Knesset is a shining counterpoint. It demonstrates the continued ability of Israel’s politicians not to be victims of their circumstances but to actively shape them, something we in the United States (and the entire Western world for that matter) should take heed of.

The most important issue the new super coalition government headed by Likud and Kadima (the largest party in the current government by seats) allows Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu to confront is the draft exemption for haredi youth. Currently known as the Tal Law, it is an element of a range of concessions first made by David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) with religious parties that enabled the dominant Israeli left to form a government without including their rivals on the right. The basic premise of the provision is that 18-year-old Jewish males who would normally be eligible for conscription into the Israeli army can receive an exemption if they are studying in a religious yeshiva.

At the time the original deal was struck, the law exempted only around 400 people. Ben-Gurion was also likely comforted by his belief in the eventual extinction of traditional religious life in the new Jewish state, which would over time make the issue moot.

On this point however he proved shortsighted, as the exempted population has grown to now around 60,000. Moreover, haredi Jews make up an increasing percentage of Israeli society that remains in many ways disconnected from the larger public, precisely because they do not participate in the Israeli-identity forming experience of IDF service. Despite a growing recognition that the exemption is no longer tenable (and even after the Israeli Supreme Court’s recent decision that the law in its current form is unconstitutional) there was widespread feeling the situation could not be changed, because to do so would require the main competing political factions to partner together, thereby forming a government that could exclude the still relatively small religious parties and make changes to the exemption whether or not they approve.

This has created a sense of impending doom in the country, as it seemed destined to watch a growing haredi population capture ever larger shares of government support without contributing to or sharing in the burdens of the larger society.

The coalition deal is a big deal because it potentially breaks that doom. There is now a sufficiently large coalition that it can pass legislation without any support from religious parties. In fact, the three largest parties (Kadima, Likud, and Yisrael Beitenu, which has gained in support in part because of its focus on changing the draft exemption) now have a majority on their own.

From a country with its own intractable problems that seem insolvable due to the inability of the two major political parties to work substantively together, the example set last night by Israel’s leaders should inspire.

No doubt there are less then pristine factors at play. Shaul Mofaz, Kadima’s leader, delays impending electoral calamity by entering the government. Netanyahu for his part delays the entrance of Yair Lapid, a potential rival, to the Knesset. One cannot hope for politics to be entirely noble.

Nevertheless, American Jews, Americans, and the West should take note and find inspiration in Israel’s demonstration today that no political problem does not have its solution.

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Israel’s Unprecedented Election Campaign

Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

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Despite the barrage of foreign criticism suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu during his three-year, second term in office, his political achievements are considerable: his has been perhaps the most stable government in living memory, and that government has managed to relegate foreign and security policy to an unprecedented degree.

After all, despite the protestations of several former politicians and security officials (including Olmert, Dagan, Diskin, and Halevy), there is consensus on the Iranian nuclear question (Israel must continue to do everything necessary), and there is consensus on the Palestinian Arab question (the ball is in their court). This means that Israel can finally have the election campaign it has long deserved: a domestic policy election, which will focus on the role of religion in Israel and on socio-economic inequality.

The government has dissolved in anticipation of the expiration in August of the Tal Law, which grants ultra-Orthodox/haredi Jews exemptions from military service. The question of how to replace this law will feature prominently in this electoral campaign, as will the more general conversation about the roles of the haredim and Israeli Arabs in Israeli society, and the related, ongoing controversies about conversion (and marriage, burial, etc.), haredi treatment of women, and the power of the chief rabbinate.

Indeed, the voices on these issues have already mobilized. Yair Lapid, a media personality and son of a former well-known minister, has launched a new party to run on such issues. And so has Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, who was expelled from the Sephardic haredi party, Shas, for pressing for a more lenient approach to conversion – though one still within the parameters of Orthodox Jewish law. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party will also weigh in on these questions, which are of interest to its rightist and Russian immigrant constituencies. And the ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties will, naturally, pursue their predictable positions as well.

Meanwhile, with one of the few economies in the world to have withstood the global recession, Israel is able to focus more closely from a position of strength on inequities in its society. And with last summer’s tent protests still fresh in the Israeli memory, Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich will make these socio-economic issues the center of her party’s campaign. It is a testament to the bankruptcy of leftist approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict that she has been elevated to her party’s leadership. The ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties – both representing poorer and more peripheral areas and groups (remember Shas has broader Sephardic support beyond its haredi base) – may also insert themselves into this conversation as well.

Not only will these parties campaign on their niche issues, but the big parties (Likud, Kadima, and Labor) will have to answer on them as well, and this may give the electorate an idea of what governing coalition will emerge – for although Netanyahu’s Likud may be poised for a big victory come September, the constitution of the Knesset as a whole will determine which policies will ultimately be enacted.

Regardless of one’s opinions on the role of religion and on the reality and resolution of socio-economic concerns in Israeli society, it is about time Israel had a real electoral conversation on these matters. Israel has Netanyahu to thank for it. And, if the polls are indicative, they will.

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