Israel Passes Controversial Law to Draft the Ultra-Orthodox Into the Military

Israel has passed a law that will draft ultra-orthodox Jews into the Israeli army, a controversial move that reverses a policy in place since the founding of the state. 

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Israel has passed a long-debated law that will make ultra-orthodox Jews eligible for military service, a controversial move that reverses a policy in place since the founding of the state.

Conscription is mandatory in Israel, but ultra-orthodox, or haredi, men enrolled full-time in institutions of Jewish learning (yeshivas) have thus far been exempt. According to the ultra-orthodox community, yeshiva students are already serving their country through study and prayer and should not be required to enroll. That's a justification the state agreed with, until now, raising the ire of secular Israelis who see the exemption as unfair. 

Protesters in New York. AP/Craig Ruttle

The debate over the draft is part of a larger one over the many concessions afforded ultra-orthodox Jews by the government — especially with regard to the settlements in the Palestinian territories. Those have largely been expanded by religious Jews who believe in a whole Israel and are criticized by many secular Jews who see them as a diversion of state funds and repeated roadblock for peace. 

The decision passed in the Knesset 67-1, and ends months of back-and-forth over what to do about the issue. Still, the vote was marked by the abstention of all 52 opposition leaders in the 120-member parliament. And they're not pleased with how it went down. One member of parliament, Moshe Gafni, had harsh words for the rest of the government over the bill, saying:

The State of Israel has lost the right to be called a Jewish and democratic state today. The haredi public will not forgot and will not forgive Netanyahu and his partners for what they caused. This is a black day for the State and for the government, no yeshiva student will enlist, not today and not in the future. 

According to Ynet News, the decision will sharpen the lines between an already divided government:

The bill was an election promise by Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, whose party spearheaded the legislation. It has enjoyed the support of religious-Zionist party Bayit Yehudi whose leader Naftali Bennett has expressed a desire to integrate haredim into the workforce and views IDF service as a facilitating such a move. The opposition walk-out came after Ynet revealed a coalition agreement that guaranteed to the bulk passage of the enlistment bill and two other controversial laws – the Governance Bill and the Referendum Bill – both of which passed despite an opposition walk-out.

The haredi community rallied against the draft leading up to the vote. Over the weekend, tens of thousands of critics gathered in New York to oppose the bill, and hundreds of thousands of people protested the bill in Jerusalem last week.

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

On the other hand, the secular leaders in the Knesset lauded the legislation. Right-wing leader Ayelet Shaked said "this is a historic and important law," adding that "for 65 years, there was an almost sweeping exemption for yeshiva students, but the coalition has presented an amendment that is proportional, gradual and proper.” The new law won't require all of-age haredi men to enlist, rather setting a quota for the draft of ultra-orthodox men and promising criminal punishment for evaders. It still allows for 1,800 exemptions each year. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.