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Two Controversial Laws Lead To Knesset Walkout

Wednesday last week, there was drama in the Knesset when MK Yisroel Eichler interrupted a caustic speech of Opposition Leader, Tzipi Livni (Kadima), by yelling out, “You are an enemy!” He was expelled from the Knesset plenum. In protest, all the members of United Torah Judaism rose from their seats and staged a unified walkout.

Livni’s hate filled speech was fueled by two controversial issues, one, the attempt of Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu, to extend the Tal Law meant to facilitate the entry of yeshiva students into army service and the work force, and the other, MK Ariel Attias’ unveiling of a new plan to provide cheaper housing for Israel’s less affluent population. Livni, no lover of the Torah public since her failure to include UTJ in a governing coalition after Israel’s last elections, regarded both issues as grossly biased in favor of the chareidi sector.

 The Tal Law

 

The Tal Law was an urgent issue last week as it must be renewed in six months time, and the decision for this renewal must be made six month in advance by February 1st.

 

This Law was promulgated in 2002 after the Supreme Court ruled that the blanket exemption of yeshiva bochurim from the army is contrary to law. Also propelling the law was the view of much of the Israeli public that it is unjust and unequal to exempt anyone from military service.

 

Furthermore, the number of yeshivaleit had increased dramatically. Whereas only 2.4% of the populace were exempted by full time learning in 1974, the number jumped to 9.2% by 1999 and to 14% by 2007. Looking at it from another angle, in 1999 there were 30,414 people exempted from army service by virtue of being Torah students and by 2005 their number had leaped to 41,450. According to the Treasury, the number of bochurim and avreichim increased threefold between 1985 and 1998.

 

According to the Tal Law, a yeshiva studentof 22 can test the waters of the working world for one year without fear of conscription. Then, if he decides to cease learning, he has the option of serving an abbreviated military service of sixteen months, or unpaid national (non-military) service for one year.

 

Impetus to conscription had a slow start. Only a few dozen yeshivaleit took advantage of the law by 2005, although things shot up by last year when the conscription of chareidi soldiers topped one thousand.

 

The law has its detractors. Many Gedolim oppose it for ideological and practical reasons. Many secularists think it let off yeshiva students too easily. Pragmatic critics of the law say that the army does not have sufficient programs for the chareidim the law is encouraging to enlist.

 

Indeed, the Yisrael Hayom newspaper reported last Monday that even Judge Tzvi Tal who headed the Tal Committee involved in promulgating the law agrees that the army is simply not interested in recruiting Orthodox soldiers.

 

“The Tal Law has not been implemented because the Israel Defense Forces is not interested in recruiting ultra-Orthodox soldiers,” he said. “A year after the Tal Law was approved, the Security Service Law was also approved, stating that students studying 45 hours a week in a yeshiva are entitled to hold jobs as well. Forty-five hours is a lot, but it reduced motivation to serve in the IDF, because they could also hold jobs without serving in the IDF.

 

“The IDF was charged with establishing a framework to absorb the chareidim that includes kosher food, religious Shabbos observance, gender-related Jewish laws,and other areas associated with the chareidi lifestyle. No attempt was made to recruit them, because the IDF does not want them.”

 

“We could easily form another battalion composed of chareidi soldiers – but the IDF isn’t interested. Over the past 10 years, the pace of drafting chareidim into the IDF has been very slow. If the law is continuously not implemented, it doesn’t matter if they extend it for five years or one year,”

 

Last Monday, a Knesset meeting took place to discuss the Tal Law. Head of the Israel Defense Forces’ personnel directorate Major-General Orna Barbibai claimed that “there is no dispute that the challenging security reality demands that we enlist everyone into meaningful service.” He pointed out that only one in four of Israeli men and almost half of Israeli woman serve in the army. Shaul Mofaz (Kadima) agreed the Tal Law should be abandoned in its present form as only half the populace is drafted, and that number is expected to fall to forty percent by 2020.

 

But National Economic Council head Eugene Kandel representing the government at the meeting said that the IDF would have difficulty absorbing more chareidi conscripts, and added that their conscription increased from 288 in 2007 to 1,282 in 2011, in excess of government goals.

 

Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, is a great opponent of the Tal Law, proposing to replace it with a law that exempts only two to three thousand yeshivaleit, and requires the rest to serve full military duty for three years.

 

Last week, dozens of IDF reservists set up a mock army camp near Tel Aviv’s train station, subtly dubbed “Camp Sucker.” To the accompaniment of passing cars honking agreement with the protest, Boaz Nol, organizer of the protest against extending the Tal Law, said that “in the state of Israel everyone has to serve, whether in the IDF or in national service.”

 

The camp was visited by politicians and public figures sympathetic to their cause. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Kadima) visited togetehr with Avi Dichter who aims to replace her as head of her party. To show her even-handedness, Livni advocated army or civilian service for Arabs.

 

“This shameful situation where there are people who do not enlist and who do not share the burden must be stopped,” she said. “We need to progress to a situation where everyone who turns 18 — secular, chareidi or Arab — enlists in the IDF. If they can’t, then there are enough places like hospitals which are desperate for manpower and help. National service can be done in these places, thus serving the community,” she said.

 

Other visitors were members in Netanyahu’s coalition. Jewish Home faction head, Zevulun Orlev, told the protesters they are obviously right because the Hesder programs where students devote sixteen months of a five years study course to the army prove that Torah study and the army can coexist in harmony.

 

Arutz Sheva reported that the head of the well-known Hesder yeshiva in Beit El, Rav Zalman Baruch Melamed supports the Tal Law.

 

“It is hard to reconcile the latest actions by the army to prevent soldiers from adhering to halacha (referring to the women singing controversy) with the voices calling for all the full time yeshiva students to serve for three years,” he said. “How does the army expect them to want to enlist?”

 

“The Tal Law is a sensible way to change the present situation gradually by allowing these students to serve without forcing it on them and causing needless antagonism with Torah figures. Those chareidim who do enlist would not do so if it meant three years of service, so the country gains by the compromise. And we all know that the ‘encampment’ protest and its political support are short lived, and that the voices calling to abolish the yeshiva student deferments will not be heard as soon as coalition talks begin and they want the chareidi parties to support the government.

 

“Forcing the issue in the short-term rather than working to accelerate positive trends over time is just political grandstanding rather than wise government.”

 

Israel’s Housing Issue

 

Another issue roiling the Israeli public last week was the announcement of a government initiative to help the less affluent with affordable housing.

 

Unlike the USA where home values have plunged over the past few years, Israelis are paying increasingly higher sums for their homes. A Yerushalayim apartment going for $64,500 in 1981 currently costs close to $300,000. Home prices rose 28% between 2003 and 2006, and an average of 27.7% in the two years after that. This is partially due to a slow down in building; the number of completed homes per annum dropped from about 60,000 in 1996, to about 30,000 for the past few years. Also, much of Israeli building is devoted to luxury apartments for wealthy buyers from abroad. This is obvious to anyone viewing the upper crust building developments in midtown Yerushalayim. All this is part of the trend of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer. The poor and middle class are having an increasingly difficult time making ends meet.

 

Last September, Professor Manuel Trachtenberg submitted a report to the government with recommendations how to lower Israelis standard of living. Regarding the critical housing shortage, his report advised the approval of 196,000 new housing units within the next five years, with 20% of them earmarked as “affordable.”

 

In response to the Trachtenberg Report, Housing Minister Ariel Attias (Shas) last week unveiled a new “Mechir Lemishkanten” plan whereby the government will sell land for fifty percent of its value in locations including Modi’in, Rosh Ayin, Yavneh, Netanya, and Haifa. Contractors submitting the lowest tenders will be chosen to build four room apartments that will be available at reduced prices. Couples buying in peripheral towns will receive a grant of 100,000 shekels.

 

The point of conflict lies in who will be eligible for these goodies.

 

The guidelines are strongly prejudiced against the Torah public because the hundred potential credits are largely unavailable or useless to this sector. Army service or national service will bring in fifteen credits and army reserve service another five. Army veterans will receive preference for fifty percent of the land. 20% of the apartments will be for childless couples, 35% for couples with one or two children, and 45% for couples with three or more children, meaning that those with large families will gain no benefit in this scheme. Additionally, the apartments will be in high-rise buildings that Torah Jews generally shun.

 

As Minister Attias admitted, “Investigations indicate that not one chareidi family has bought an apartment in such buildings. One problem is the use of elevators on Shabbos. Another is entrances with guards who are also employed on Shabbos, and a third problem is finding place for a sukkah.

 

Only a minor part of Atias’ scheme is favorable to Torah Jews. Each year of marriage up to ten years gives another eight credits, a plus for stable Torah families. Also, the guidelines ignores applicants working potential, meaning that a learning avreich will be as eligible as someone with an nine to five job. Yet despite the program’s bias against Torah Jews, people in search of political bargaining chips did not hesitate to attack Attias’s program as pro-chareidi and anti the general public.

 

Two Storms Collide

 

The Tal Law and Attias’s apartment plan collided one evening last week during a Knesset session convened to discuss the Tal Law.

 

Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke in support of extending the law despite his past opposition.

 

“I think it is the correct thing to do,” he said. “We do not need this conflict in our country. In any case, our enemies aiming their missiles at our heads do not notice who is wearing a yarmulkeh on his head and who is not, and what style yarmulkeh someone is wearing. As far as they are concerned, their intent is to do the same to us all, including our Arab citizens.”

 

Head of the Opposition, MK Tzipi Livni, mounted a virulent attack against the Tal Law and Attias’s new “Mechir Lemishkanten” program.

 

“The time has come, Prime Minister, to look at the simple citizen who goes to take something off the supermarket shelf and cannot pay for it,” she said. “The decision of the Housing Minister today is yet another spit in the face for those who went into the streets in protest… This decision presented by the Ministry of Housing is an absolute insult to the Trachtenberg Committee.

 

“The Trachtenberg Committee suggested two alternatives, to make a person’s work potential an absolute requirement or an important criteria. But once again, through a cunning scheme… we suddenly find ourselves dealing with the question of how long a couple waiting in line [for an apartment] has been married for. According to this, young couples who serve in the army or work have no good news. As usual, they are paying the price for Netanyahu’s coalition.”

 

Livni forgot to mention the disadvantages accruing to Torah families from the program, or the fact that during the previous election she was no less eager than Netanyahu to strike a coalition deal with Torah parties.

 

Then she came down on the Tal Law.

 

“I agree that people also came to me and said, ‘Leave them alone. Let them go and work without army service. I cannot agree to this. I totally oppose this idea. It may be logical and it may be that it will enable more people to go to work, but there is something about basic Zionist social justice that disallows me from supporting it…. This [equal army service] is a basic part of what let’s us continue to live together and also to struggle against our external enemies.”

 

During her tirade, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Gafni and Chairman of the Vaadat Hakesafim Moshe Gafni had interrupted her here and there. Real drama began when Eichler echoed her words, ‘our external enemies,’ by yelling out, “You are our enemy.”

 

The Knesset Chairman expelled him at once and all the members of United Torah Judaism walked out with him in protest.

 

Later that evening, UTJ announced, “The time has come for every provocateur to realize that they will gain nothing. They will only lose through their provocations. We will keep silent no longer. We will not allow our insulters to continue their provocations. Just as they ejected Kahane’s party for sectarian provocation against Arabs, so we will reject and fight against all sectarian provocation against the chareidi public.”

 

Unfortunately, Livni’s speech is the beginning of a flood of provocation that is likely to flood the media until the end of the next elections. The Kadima primaries are due in March and its leaders have not forgotten that for the meanwhile, anti-Torah invective is good for gaining easy points.