Israeli cabinet backs law to force ultra-Orthodox to enlist

Only 'outstanding scholars' are exempt from military service as ministers can ignore backlash

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 July, 2013, 3:43am

Israel's cabinet has approved a draft law to abolish wholesale exemptions from military duty granted to Jewish seminary students, stoking ultra-Orthodox anger.

Many Israelis have long bridled over state privileges handed to the conservative believers or "Haredim" - a Hebrew term meaning "those who tremble before God".

The debate heated up when elections in January saw strong performances for two parties that campaigned against the exemptions and created the first cabinet in a decade without ultra-Orthodox members.

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18, and often see active service in the occupied West Bank and other flashpoints.

But ultra-Orthodox men studying in seminaries, religious women and Arab citizens have been exempted since the Jewish state was formed in 1948.

Under the law, only 1,800 of those students, designated "outstanding biblical scholars", would get an exemption, out of the estimated "The government's abuse of the haredi minority verges on persecution and cruelty," Meir Porush, an ultra-Orthodox legislator from the opposition United Torah Judaism party, said about the cabinet's decision on Sunday.

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis say the study of the holy scriptures is a foundation of Jewish life and scholars have a right to devote themselves full time to the task.

"This is a stain on the State of Israel, which has become the only country in the world to determine that studying the scriptures is not legitimate," another United Torah Judaism legislator, Moshe Gafni, said.

Changing the so-called secular-religious status quo has carried significant political risk for its coalition governments, which have often relied on the support of ultra-Orthodox partners.

Two months ago, 30,000 Haredim in traditional black garb rallied to rabbis' calls against conscription reform and protested outside a military recruitment centre in Jerusalem.

But while leaders of the Haredim community have pledged more mass demonstrations against the legislation, an ultra-Orthodox backlash poses little danger to this government's survival, given its composition.

Hoping to avoid any immediate confrontation, the government agreed to delay any sanctions against draft-dodgers by imposing a four-year interim period in which the military will encourage young Bible scholars to enlist. "We will make this change gradually through consideration for the needs of the ultra-Orthodox community," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

About 3,500 Haredim already serve in the military, and a recent study by the Economy Ministry found 70 per cent of ultra-Orthodox soldiers entered the workforce after they completed their service. By contrast, only 45 per cent of all Haredi men are employed, according to the central bank.