Israel’s coalition government is in crisis, after a parliamentary committee recommended the forced conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews. For the past three decades, they have been exempted from military service.
The issue of military conscription is currently polarizing Israel and pitting different sectors of society - and their lawmakers - against each other. All Israeli citizens over the age of 18 are obliged to sign up, with men serving at least three years and women serving two years. Anyone who refuses to serve will be fined or even jailed. But there is one group that has a blanket exemption: ultra-Orthodox Jews. They are an extremely religious closed group who devote themselves to studying the Jewish holy books.
Those who tremble before God
Known in Israel as Haredim - those who tremble before God - they live in accordance with their strict interpretation of Jewish law. They read their own newspapers, listen to their own radio stations - where no women are interviewed - and have limited contact with people outside their community.
At present they make up less than ten percent of Israel's population, but their numbers are growing rapidly.
Israel's secular majority, frustrated by the inequality in conscription, is calling for change. Idan Miller heads a campaign group called Common Ground, which grew out of the 2011 social protests, Israel's version of the Occupy movement.
“I believe there is a time in a democracy when the majority has to say to the minority, 'we've had enough'. When the Haredim were four to five percent of the population we could swallow the bitter pill somehow. But it won't be long before they will be 20 to 25 percent of the population, and we cannot live with this,” said Miller.
The campaign calls on the ultra-Orthodox to do military or community service, and to go out and work. An Israeli government panel this month recommended implementing some of these changes.
Angry response from the Haredim
The panel proposed a compromise: drafting the Haredim into military or civic service, from the older age of 23, and for shorter periods than those served by secular Israelis. But the Haredi response was furious. Thousands protested at dawn in Jerusalem at the end of last month, saying they wouldn't go.
“I am sure they will not go, not at all," said Dov Halbertal, a Haredi law lecturer and rabbi. "It cannot be. They cannot convince the religious to take such a step, just as the religious cannot convince them - they cannot convince each other. There is a huge ideological dispute here, a huge gap, and there is no political solution to this dispute."
He argues that his community is devoted to preserving Jewish heritage, and that spending the years from 18-25 studying is integral to this task.
"It's a real question of saving the life of this nation," said Halbertal. "You are forced to preserve those places that preserve the Jewish identity, because if you do not, maybe everyone will serve, everyone will be killed together, but it won't be for Judaism, because something will happen to our heritage."
The secular campaigners responded with a rally of their own in Tel Aviv last weekend. Some 30,000 Israelis attended. They included many of the people who vote for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. People like 35-year-old Zafrir, who runs a tech business in Tel Aviv. He served in the army and also does reserve duty for a month every year.
“I think this is something that if there will be no change there will be no Israel in the future,” said Zafrir. “We are being threatened not by the enemy from outside but by problems from inside, and we need to solve this.”
The blanket draft exemption for Haredi students has been in force since the 1970s. In addition, the government also funds their studies. This arouses the resentment of secular Israeli students forced to foot their own university bills once they finish their military service.
Rabbi Halbertal says he understands the secular population's frustration, but he believes that studying in the Haredi schools, known as “yeshivot”, is equivalent to military service.
“It's difficult to understand: One side is being killed but they are giving money to the other side to sit and learn,” said Rabbi Halbertal. “But this goes to the heart of the question of what is the 'burden' today in the Jewish state. Is the burden serving in the army or is the burden serving in the yeshivot? I can assure you it's not easy to serve in the yeshivot.”
Maintaining a closed community
Haredi leaders have traditionally preserved their community by keeping it separate, and they are afraid that a secular melting pot like the Israeli military could wean their flock away from its core values. Rabbi Halbertal concedes that his leaders are afraid of openness, but says this is because God commanded the Haredim to be fearful.
“God tells us to be frightened, every day. We are fearing all the time, and watching ourselves all the time, because God knows His creation.”
The government is currently debating what penalties the ultra-Orthodox will face if they disobey the order to serve, either in the military or in some other form of civic service. The Haredi political parties have held the balance of power in almost every government in Israel for six decades. They are threatening to withdraw from the coalition and to begin a civil disobedience campaign. Negotiations on the new law are currently deadlocked, and a political crisis is looming.
The political system in Israel allows the minority to be king makers and, in effect, to control the majority. But this is also a question of whose vision for Jewish life will triumph - and who will force the other to do it their way.
Author: Irris Makler / ji
Editor: Gabriel Borrud