Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews headed to the army, maybe

Wednesday, May 29, 2013 |  Ryan Jones

Israel's government on Wednesday officially passed the first of many hurdles toward getting the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community into the army and general workforce, which would mark a seismic shift in modern Israeli society.

At a meeting of the Peri Committee established by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to explore solutions to this problem, all but two cabinet ministers voted in favor of draft legislation authorizing criminal proceedings against Orthodox Jews who do not answer the mandatory call to military service.

When Israel was first reborn as a nation state 65 years ago, the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, struck a deal with the powerful rabbis of his time whereby a select group of 400 Torah scholars would be exempt from military service in order to continue their studies. Both the rabbis and Ben Gurion agreed that pious study of God's Word was just as important as wielding a gun when it came to Israel's defense.

But today, that exemption clause is used by the vast majority of young ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to get out of doing national service. With changing demographics, it has become a major problem as nearly one-third of Israel's Jewish population fails to help defend the country, join the workforce or pay taxes.

One of the most hotly debated campaign promises in Israel's recent general election was the determined pledge by Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid to alter the ultra-Orthodox position in society before it's too late.

To this end, Bennett and Lapid forged what proved to be an unbreakable alliance, forcing Netanyahu to bring the Orthodox into the military draft.

Lapid hailed Wednesday's initial approval of the new law as a "historic moment" for Israel, and told the ultra-Orthodox community that this is being done because Israel needs them, "with gun in hand, alongside us."

Lapid sought to repel accusations that he is anti-religious, explaining that the move "isn’t an attack on the world of Torah. None of us want to force you into secularism."

At the same time, Lapid continued, "We’re together in the same boat and we can’t carry you on our backs. I know you think studying Torah defends the people of Israel. The idea that all the people of Israel are brothers protects us just as much."

The new law still allows a rabbinical council to select up to 1,800 outstanding young Torah students every year who will be exempts from national service. It also provides for the deferment of national service for up to two years to continue religious studies.

If passed, the new law should bring an additional 7,000-8,000 recruits into the Israeli army every year. Lapid and others hope that following their service, more of these ultra-Orthodox men will also enter the workforce.

But, it's not a done deal yet. While Lapid has tied his continued presence in the government to this bill, there remains heavy opposition from the ultra-Orthodox community, including members of Knesset.

For the past few weeks, major Orthodox demonstrations have been held around Israel decrying what they see as an attack not only on their community, but on the Bible itself.

The ultra-Orthodox continue to wield significant influence in various parts of the government, and there are more than a few who are skeptical that Lapid's bill will ever be passed into law.

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