Proposals to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli army, ending an exemption that has lasted for 64 years, are bitterly dividing prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government ahead of a crucial debate on Monday.
A new bill allowing the draft is due to be submitted for its first reading in the Knesset, following a ruling by the country’s supreme court that the Tal Law, exempting Haredi Jews from military service, was unconstitutional. That law is due to expire on 1 August, but what will replace it has become the subject of ferocious argument over one of the most sensitive issues in Israeli society…
Yaakov Uri, who runs a pizza parlour in Geula, an Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, said the problem was that secular Israelis like Yosam had no understanding of the sacrifices religious Jews make for them. “You think it’s so easy to sit and study all day, bring up seven children on $700 a month? No, it’s very hard,” he said.
These men, in his opinion, are as critical for the defence of Israel as the army. They provide spiritual protection. “The Torah is saving and guarding the Jews,” Uri said. “Take the Iraq war. Saddam Hussein sent 39 Scud missiles into Israel. They didn’t touch anyone. What is this? It wasn’t the army – they sat with their arms folded. It was the Torah,” he said. “There many kinds of soldiers, on planes, on ships, but also in the yeshiva.”
As a compromise, he suggested that yeshiva students who were not truly devoted to Torah studies – around one-third, he thought – should serve in the army. But this was provided, of course, that they were served kosher food, given enough time to pray and segregated from women.
There are points when religious freedom becomes religious privilege, and this is one of them.