A committee is being established to come up with an alternative to the Tal Law, and the deal that emerges will affect Israel’s Haredi community more than any other segment of society since it will determine what becomes of the system whereby Haredi Jews are granted exemptions from military service. So naturally, one would expect the Haredi parties to be intimately involved in coming up with new proposals and fighting tooth and nail to get as many seats on the committee as possible. Right?

In fact, the Tal Law committee is being boycotted by Shas and UTJ following rabbinical instructions to the parties’ MKs that they should not participate since the Haredi rabbinical leadership is ideologically opposed to compulsory military service for the members of its community. Shas head Eli Yishai, who was previously on record as being willing to consider alternatives to the Tal Law, changed his mind after meeting with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and now says that he is against any negotiations or quotas and that the right of Haredim to study Torah should not be subject to debate. Instead, Shas is going to come up with its own plan for draft reform outside the auspices of the official committee, while UTJ has threatened to leave the coalition on the orders of its own rabbinical leadership should Haredi students be prevented from studying Torah all day.

Boycotts of politics never end well. All that happens is that politics proceeds apace, and the parties that choose not to participate do not get to air their grievances, promote their interests, or affect the results in any way. This is particularly true when the boycotters are not protesting the legitimacy of the political system itself, but rather a specific policy that they do not like. Shas and UTJ are not taking a stand against the Knesset’s legitimacy; they just think that the people they represent should be allowed a different set of rules than everyone else. Now, it is understandable that they think this way, since for decades they have indeed had a different set of rules that were endorsed by the Knesset, the courts, and the other organs of Israeli democracy. The corollary to this though is that if the old rules were deemed to be legitimate, then any new rules that emerge must be deemed legitimate as well.

It seems to me that the Haredi politicians understand this. Yishai seemed willing at first to be involved in crafting a compromise, and apostate Shas MK Haim Amsalem has blasted Shas for not participating in the committee. It is only on the orders of the various rabbis who comprise Shas and UTJ’s “spiritual leadership” that the two parties are now boycotting the committee rather than serving on it. This appears like a logical step to the rabbinic overseers, since like anything else that conflicts with their interpretation of halakha – immodestly dressed women, “secular” music, the internet, etc. – their approach is to ban any contact with it. In their view, the Tal Law committee is going to force Haredim to stop devoting all their time to learning Torah, and since they consider this to be unlawful from a religious standpoint, they will have nothing to do with it and have instructed their MKs accordingly. While the religious logic of this might make sense, the political logic does not. What is sure to happen now is that a compromise will be worked out that will not be to the Haredi parties’ liking, the Haredi community and its leaders will reject it as illegitimate, and Israel will have a new problem on its hands. I do not begrudge the Haredi parties their reliance on rabbis to influence their policy proposals. In a democracy, any party has the right to organize itself as it chooses, and this applies to religious parties just as equally as it applies to anyone else. The Shas and UTJ MKs, however, know enough to realize that religious expertise is not the same as political expertise, and when the rabbinical leadership begins to control tactical political decisions rather than broad policy preferences, it is going to lead to political disaster.

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