Q&A: What conscription for the ultra-Orthodox means for Israel


Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men use a candle light to read from the book of Eicha (Book of Lamentations) during the annual Tisha B’Av (Ninth of Av) fasting and a memorial day, commemorating the destruction of ancient Jerusalem temples, in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, on July 28, 2012.

A new law in Israel will require ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the military and civil service, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared yesterday. The law will also extend to Arab Israelis, meaning two historically exempt groups will now be required to serve. The news comes after Israel's Supreme Court struck down the exemption law in February, ruling it unconstitutional for violating the right to equality, according to Jewish News One. The court gave the government until August 1 to come up with an alternative to exemption.

But parliament hasn't been able to agree on how to proceed, the BBC reported. With the deadline bearing down yesterday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak gave his officials one month to figure out how to begin implementing a new draft procedure.

More from GlobalPost: Israel ending draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis

While the change is a significant shift for the military, it's an even bigger change to expect from the ultra-Orthodox community. Over 62,000 students of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, or religious schools, are currently exempted from service to pursue their studies, a status the growing ultra-Orthodox population has enjoyed for decades. While many Israelis have come to resent that exemption from duty, the ultra-Orthodox contend that their way of life already includes service to the country.

“We hear Israelis say that it is not fair that they serve in the army and we don’t, that their blood protects us,” David Amin, a 23-year-old seminary student, told McClatchy. “But that is not how we see it. We believe that our prayers, our religious study, that is what truly protects the State of Israel. It is not armies that save them, it is God’s will.”

The place of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israeli society has been a point of increasing debate as their numbers have grown. The New York Times characterized the issue as having "erupted into a crisis" earlier this year. At that time, the ultra-Orthodox made up nearly 13 percent of Israel's population, while the unemployment rate among ultra-Orthodox men — who prioritize religious study — was 60 percent.

"It is this combination — accepting government subsidies, refusing military service and declining to work, all while having six to eight children per family — that is unsettling for many Israelis, especially when citizens feel economically insecure and mistreated by the government," The New York Times wrote.

For those reasons, the question of conscription-for-all is also a sensitive political issue. According to AFP, recent diagreements over how to word the legislation for a new draft law "has caused sharp disputes within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition." Those disputes aren't likely to be settled until at least October, when the Israeli parliament will reconvene from its summer break, AFP reported.

We asked GlobalPost correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky, who is based in Israel, some questions about what the change means locally. Below is an edited version of the exchange.

Why do you think this is happening now?

It's happening now because the Tal Law, the law that enshrined the orthodox Jews' exemption, was brought to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. No politician would have brought this up now. They run from this issue as from fire.

Where does Benjamin Netanyahu fall on this issue?

Netanyahu is hard to pin down on this issue. He speaks like those who want to stop the "draft-dodging," but he acts like one who wants to save his coalition with religious parties.

A small portion of the Israeli army is already ultra-Orthodox, and there are special provisions made for their service. Does their participation give a sense of how wider participation by the ultra-Orthodox community would affect the military?

It's not even a minority. It is infinitesimal participation for now, and yes, special provisions were made. I think that, for now, we are not even talking about 1,000 soldiers. So it's hard to know how a massive draft of Orthodox men would affect the military.

In your observation, why have the few who have signed up voluntarily done so?

My sense is that those who have joined did so for various and sundry reasons, from an escape from poverty to patriotism. Some have been obliged — for example, drop-outs from religious institutions.

Arab Israelis are also set to be drafted. How are they reacting to the proposed change?

Arab Israelis are reacting variously, but my sense is that mostly they are opposed. Not violently [opposed], but they are not thrilled by the notion.

Watch the video below for more on the Supreme Court's ruling on the exemption law.