Author: Heather Hartlaub/Muftah
After years of debate, Israel’s Knesset passed new legislation removing the exemption from compulsory military service for the country’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.
This debate has been at the heart of a cultural war in Israel between the majority of secular and Orthodox Jews and the ultra-Orthodox Jews. Many Israelis believe in a more equitable distribution of the compulsory three years of military service for 18-year-old men and women. The ultra-Orthodox claim they are already serving Israel, as their studies protect the nation’s culture and heritage.
Recent voting among mainstream Israelis has shown growing resentment toward the ultra-Orthodox who take benefits from the state but do not contribute to growing the economy. They already make up almost 10% of Israel’s population, and with their typically large families, will continue to grow.
The contentious exemption from compulsory military service began after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when President David Ben-Gurion granted full time yeshiva students – ultra-Orthodox Jews who study the Torah – state funding and exclusion from military service to renew a generation of Torah scholars lost in the Holocaust.
According to the new law, there will be small quotas for drafting yeshiva students into service. They will also be allowed to choose between military or civil service, an option that is not offered to other Israelis, and will be allowed to defer their service from the mandatory 18-years of age to 26. There is also a 3-year grace period before the law goes into effect.
The question now is how ultra-Orthodox soldiers will change the culture of the Israeli military. The ultra-Orthodox believe in separating men and women and keeping their hair length and facial hair in ways violate military regulation. Ultra-Orthodox women ascribe to values of modesty that may be difficult to keep in a military environment.
In addition to their unique cultural and religious practices, ultra-Orthodox Jews have also taken the lead in committing hate crimes in an already intolerant country, including the Price Tag Campaign, in which ultra-Orthodox settlers committed acts of random violence against Muslim and Christian Palestinians and Arab Israelis. They are vehement supporters of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and may spread these extremists political beliefs to secular Israelis in the army who may otherwise oppose Israel’s encroachment on Palestine.
It is, however, possible that few ultra-Orthodox will ever enter the military, despite the new law. Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research organization in Jerusalem, and former dean of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s law faculty stated that by the end of the three year grace period, there could be a whole new government “and the whole law would become thin air.” Given the delay, he said, “It is questionable whether the Knesset accomplished anything.”