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Ultra-Orthodox Jews outraged as Israel passes military conscription law

Published time: March 12, 2014 15:39
Thousands of Orthodox Jews gather on Water Street in lower Manhattan March 9, 2014 to pray and protest against the current effort by the Israeli government to pass a law to draft religious Jews into its army (AFP Photo / Timothy A. Clary)

Thousands of Orthodox Jews gather on Water Street in lower Manhattan March 9, 2014 to pray and protest against the current effort by the Israeli government to pass a law to draft religious Jews into its army (AFP Photo / Timothy A. Clary)

Despite protests from Jewish opposition parties and diaspora groups, Israeli MPs on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed a law forcing ultra-Orthodox Jews to join the military, perform civilian service or face prosecution.

The bill was voted through the 120-seat Knesset by a wide margin of 65 to 1, with the main opposition parties boycotting the vote. The single dissenting vote was cast by far-right Jewish Home MP Yoni Chetboun.

The law would mean a major change in Israeli society, where ultra-Orthodox Jews have traditionally been exempt from military service, instead serving society through prayer and study, helping to protect Jewish culture. But in recent years, calls for the ultra-Orthodox to contribute more to the country’s defense and economy have grown dramatically.

Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri stated after the bill’s passage: “For the first time, an issue at the heart of the conflict of Israeli society will be solved. Dramatic change will come.”

However, the bill has given rise to a great deal of controversy. “I oppose the draft law,” Chetboun, who lost his position on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said in a statement. “It is ill-conceived, and comes at the peak of a wave of anti-religious legislation that seeks to dilute the Jewish character of the State of Israel.”

Opposition parties had earlier said they would not participate in the vote, which has sparked a wave of condemnation from ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens.

The law, which will go into force in 2017, requires that ultra-Orthodox males must either join the army or perform civilian service, with a special clause that punishes draft dodgers with possible imprisonment.

Israel has long had a compulsory draft, with men serving in the military for three years and women two.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in a mass prayer vigil in Jerusalem on March 2, 2014.(AFP Photo / David Buimovitch)

Earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets of Jerusalem to speak out and pray against the impending legislation.

The protests also took place as far afield as New York, where on Sunday an estimated 50,000 Satmar Jews assembled along 10 blocks of Manhattan, with men and women in separate groups as is the tradition in religious ceremonies.

"The problem is, anyone who goes into the Israeli military becomes secular, and that would erase our whole tradition," Yitz Farkas, a member of the Brooklyn-based True Torah Jews organization, told AP.

"We're all united against military service for religious men in Israel because it doesn't allow for religious learning," said Peggy Blier, an interior designer from Brooklyn. "The Israeli government is looking to destroy religious society and make the country into a secular melting pot.”

Since 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, adherents of Haredi Judaism, who reject many aspects of modern secular culture, including viewing films and television, were exempted from compulsory military service to pursue their stringent religious studies. Increasingly, however, many secular Israelis said the exemption for a relatively large number of Jews was unfair.

The draft law is regarded by several Israelis as rectifying a perceived historic injustice of exemption, given to the ultra-Orthodox community in 1948, when Israel was established as a nation. However, they were at that point only a small proportion of the population.

However, a high birth rate has since expanded their role in society, making them the fastest-growing group in the country.

"This is a historic, important bill," MK Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi), who led the parliamentary committee to prepare the legislation, declared as quoted by the Jerusalem Post. "For 65 years there was an exemption for all yeshiva students and the change the coalition made is proportionate and gradual and correct."

Shaked added that she "believes in the Haredi public and that it will reach the [conscription] goals the government set.

"I imagine this law will reach the High Court by tomorrow. I hope the judges will read the protocols of the committee meetings and see that even if the law is not equal it has a worthy goal, which is why I think it will stand the test of the High Court," she added.

Immediately after the new law passed, the Movement for Quality Government petitioned the High Court against it.