Israeli draft pits secular Jews vs. ultra-Orthodox

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As ultra-Orthodox parties became power brokers, the numbers mounted. Ultra-Orthodox officials now estimate there are about 100,000 full-time Torah learners of draft age.

The pattern has lasting ramifications. The heavy emphasis on religious study, begun early on in a separate system of elementary schools, has pushed many ultra-Orthodox men to shun the work world, relying on welfare as they spend their days immersed in holy texts. The ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens.

Steep unemployment, believed to hover around 50 percent, coupled with a high birthrate has fueled deep poverty in the ultra-Orthodox sector. With families of eight to 10 children commonplace, more than a quarter of all Israeli first graders today are ultra-Orthodox. Experts say if these trends continue, Israel’s long-term economic prospects are in danger.

But changing the ways of the ultra-Orthodox will not be easy. Leaders speak proudly of centuries-old traditions of prayer and learning that they believe has allowed the Jewish people to survive such tragedies as the Spanish Inquisition, European pogroms and the Holocaust. Study in Yeshiva seminaries, they say, is no less important than military strength in protecting the country from modern threats in a hostile region.

“You have to understand, we are part of the Jewish army,” said Aharon Grossman, a 30-year-old student at Mir Yeshiva. “Some people serve in tanks. We serve in yeshiva.”

Ultra-Orthodox leaders insist they will never be forced to serve in the military.

For decades, a string of secular-led Israeli governments have maintained the status quo, either because of their dependence on ultra-Orthodox political kingmakers or out of fear of an angry backlash from a sector that hasn’t hesitated to block roads, clash with police or mobilize tens of thousands of activists into the streets when ordered by their rabbis.

With the clock ticking, Netanyahu now faces a near-impossible task as he tries to satisfy the demands of the secular masses, the Supreme Court and various coalition partners all while preventing sectarian unrest.

Before the parliamentary committee collapse, ultra-Orthodox parties boycotted the panel. And in a sign of what may lie ahead, thousands of black-clad ultra-Orthodox took to the streets of Jerusalem last week to protest the committee’s work. Some wore sacks in a sign of mourning over the prospect of being forced into service.

Einat Wilf, a lawmaker with the secular Independence party, said the ultra-Orthodox have no right to complain, adding that Israelis are fed up with a system in which they take and give nothing back in return.

“I, for one, do not believe that their prayers are protecting soldiers and they can’t force their ways upon me,” she said. “If they want to pray, fine, but not at my expense.”

She said that despite ultra-Orthodox intransigence, the doomed committee she was a member of had sought a compromise — even if it was not to the liking of secularists like her.

“Will it be better than the current situation? Yes,” she said. “Will it be fair and just? Absolutely not.”

A day after Netanyahu disbanded the committee, its chairman nonetheless released his recommendations. Among the proposals: that no more than 20 percent of ultra-Orthodox males, roughly 1,500 people a year, be granted exemptions, while others be permitted to defer service for no more than five years. A national service option was also introduced for those who didn’t fit into the military.

The details of the debate have dominated political discussion in Israel, handing Netanyahu his biggest challenge yet since he formed a 94-member coalition in early May. His office says he will meet quietly with political leaders in the coming days in order to formulate a fair draft law.

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