Sparks ready to fly: Professor worries about forcing haredim into Israeli army

Bookish law professors normally avoid alarmist language, but professor Yedidia Stern worries that mere days from now, his country will face a “historic moment that may change the solidarity of the State of Israel.”

He doesn’t rule out the possibility of civil war.

The cause of his concern is the looming expiration of the country’s Tal Law, which exempts ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from military service.

If no replacement law is enacted by Aug. 1, then automatically all citizens would be required to serve — no exceptions (though no one expects this to happen right away). Despite ongoing negotiations, the Israeli government has yet to solve the problem.

Soldiers in the Netzah Yehuda Battalion (the Israeli army’s ultra-Orthodox regiment) pause to pray. photo/jta-flash90-abir sultan

Speculation has been hot and heavy in recent weeks that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition could collapse over this issue. Sure enough, this week, Kadima Party leaders voted to pull out of the coalition, citing differences over the Tal Law replacement as the cause.

“I’m afraid ultra-Orthodox will go to the streets saying [they] want separation from Israel,” Stern said in San Francisco last week. “I can see 200,000 people in the streets in front of the Supreme Court saying Torah is more important than anything else.”

Stern was in town to increase support for the Israel Democracy Institute ( for which he serves as vice president. He spoke about the current crisis at a private event at the home of Donna Dubinsky and Len Shustek.

For years, many non-Orthodox Jewish Israelis have resented the fact that not all Israelis have shared in the burden of defending the country. Though Orthodox and Arab participation in national service has increased in recent years, the exemptions have been in place since Israel’s earliest days.

Until now. A recent Supreme Court ruling struck down the Tal Law, bringing the issue to a head.

A committee had been tasked with drafting recommendations for a replacement law, and its chairman, Knesset member Yohanan Plesner, issued a report calling for 80 percent of eligible haredim (ultra-Orthodox) to serve in the army by 2016, or face stiff fines.

Stern, who sat on the recently disbanded committee, decried this recommendation as too much, too fast.

Yedidia Stern

“Two-thirds is enough right now,” he said. “More importantly, it’s not only the numbers but the definition of who will go and who will not. The report suggests that 20 percent will be selected by the head of the yeshivot [Torah study institutes]. That’s wrong because you cannot privatize the process of selecting who goes into the army.”

He also criticized the report’s recommendation of establishing military quotas for the ultra-Orthodox, who make up 10 percent of Israel’s population. Stern thinks goals, rather than strict quotas, would better appeal to haredim.

“There are moderate [haredi] rabbis,” he said. “We have to help them win over the soul of the ultra-Orthodox community.”

Stern also said a “new phenomenon” has emerged. “We call it new haredim: ultra-Orthodox, but they watch TV, they want their kids to be educated, exposed to the Internet. To me this is the future, and how we can survive together.”

Israeli Arabs pose different challenges. Though some Bedouin and Druze serve in the military, an overwhelming majority of Israel’s Arab population does not (though some do participate in voluntary community service).

Still, Stern sees some bright spots.

“Five years ago, only 250 Israeli Arabs served,” he said. “Last year it was [ten times that number]. That’s a huge change in a short period. We know about 60 percent supporting some kind of service. [Arab] leaders are opposing it. They feel it’s a conspiracy to Zionize.”

Stern says the haredi and Arab Israeli circumstances are too different to group them together into one new law. For starters, he worries compelling Israeli Arabs into service could push moderates into the hands of radicals.

“We have to give [Arab Israelis] positive incentive,” he said. “Some kind of civil service is an opportunity for them to do something of importance, earn some money, acquire a skill — and we should allow them to do it in their own community.”

The English-born Stern earned his masters and doctorate at Harvard before joining the faculty at Bar-Ilan University Law School, where he still teaches. He sat on numerous state committees over the years, and since joining the IDI, he has headed the institute’s project on religion and the state, as well its ongoing project on human rights and Judaism.

Stern also happens to be Orthodox, so he takes the current controversy personally.

“Right now, the ultra-Orthodox population is growing very fast,” Stern said. “They cannot just be observers. They have to take part and take responsibility.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.