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Israel approves army conscription for ultra-Orthodox


Israeli lawmakers have passed a controversial law that would allow ultra-Orthodox Jews to be drafted into the army, overturning the country's long-time policy exempting them from military service.


The exemption has angered secular Israelis who say the religious conservatives are not doing their fair share for the nation. But the ultra-Orthodox say their young men serve through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage, adding that conscription poses a threat to their community.

The issue lies at the heart of an ongoing debate on the role of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society.

The matter featured prominently in the elections last year, which led to the establishment of a centre-right government that has pushed through the draft reforms.

Wednesday’s vote passed 67-1 in the 120-member Knesset. The opposition boycotted the vote to protest what it says are strong-arm tactics by the ruling coalition.

Both women and men are required to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces.

“The change begins tomorrow morning and it is expected to transform the face of Israeli society unrecognizably,” said Yaakov Peri of the Yesh Atid party, which has led the drive for draft reform.

Since Israel’s founding in 1948 the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens, have largely been allowed to avoid military service in order to pursue religious studies.

In contrast, most secular Jewish men perform three years of compulsory service.

The stark difference in society continues well into adulthood. Older religious men often don’t work and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.

Proponents of the law say bringing the ultra-Orthodox into the military will lead to their further integration into the workforce.

Israel’s central bank chief and international bodies, such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, have warned that high unemployment in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors threatens Israel’s economic future.

Under the law, the army would be required to draft an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews each year, with the goal of enlisting 5,200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers – roughly 60 percent of those of draft age – by mid-2017. Israel would grant financial incentives to religious seminaries that send their students to the army.

If the ultra-Orthodox community does not meet that quota by then, the law calls for mandatory service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and criminal sanctions for draft dodgers.

The legislation has sparked large demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox, including a rally last week in Jerusalem that drew hundreds of thousands of people. Early this week, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York protested against the legislation.

But some secular groups have also complained, both because it will take three years for the law to fully go into effect and because it falls short of the near-universal conscription required of other Israeli men.

The draft issue is part of a broader debate about the role of religion in Israel. With poverty and unemployment high in the religious sector, voices have emerged criticising the ultra-Orthodox education system, which minimises studies of subjects like math and English in favour of religion.

The ultra-Orthodox have also come under fire for attempting at times to impose their conservative values, such as separating men and women, on the broader population. Ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities also hold a monopoly over rituals like weddings and burials.

Coalition members praised the law, but emphasised the need for unity after the vote.

Yitzhak Vaknin, a lawmaker with the ultra-Orthodox opposition party Shas, said he opposed the law because of the criminal sanctions on those who fail to comply.

“We understand there is a need to participate in things, but there is also a great duty of the people of Israel to study Torah,” he said.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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