Ultra-Orthodox Jews Protest Against Military Conscription

By Linda Gradstein | The Media Line

October 25, 2017

Ultra-Orthodox Jews hold placards during a protest against Israeli army conscription, in the center of Jerusalem, on March 28, 2017. (Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)

Extremists vow never to be drafted into army

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews have been arrested after protesters at the entrance to Jerusalem blocked the main highway, threw rocks at the light rail train and vowed that they would never agree to be drafted into the Israeli army.  Police used water cannon armed with a bad-smelling liquid and other riot dispersal methods against the demonstrators.

“Our policy is to open up the roads and make arrests when necessary,” Israel National Police Spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld told The Media Line. “We also met with leaders of the community and told them that any more illegal protests will be dealt with on a larger scale. At the same time, we want to prevent a full-scale riot.”

Parts of the capital were completely shut down during  afternoon rush hour and the light rail train did not operate. Israeli media highlighted the story of a bride who was forced to walk to her own wedding as there was no other way to reach the hall. Angry travelers vented on Facebook regarding commutes of several hours instead of 30 minutes.

The ultra-Orthodox—or haredim—protesters belong to the so-called Jerusalem Faction, which launched the rallies following the arrest of several youths who refused to report to the draft board to receive their exemption from military service.

Under a deal that has functioned for decades, haredim who are involved in full-time religious study can receive a draft exemption if they go before a military panel to ask for one. Women who are not ultra-Orthodox can also avoid conscription if they say they are uncomfortable serving together with men. Most of these women from the national-religious camp choose to enter into alternative national service programs.

Otherwise, all Jewish men are required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces for two years and eight months, and women for two years. That most ultra-Orthodox do not serve has driven a wedge between Israel’s religious minority and secular majority. The most extreme of the ultra-Orthodox do not believe there should be a state of Israel, whereas others contend that by studying Torah and other holy books they are contributing more to the country than by serving in the army.

Israeli analysts say the protests are a response to changes that are taking place inside the haredi community, which comprises about 15 percent of Israel’s population.

“There is greater openness to general society and more and more are going to work and joining the military,” Yair Sheleg, the head of the Religion and State Program at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem told The Media Line. “Some ultra-Orthodox are afraid this will change the whole community.”

Some believe that the ultra-Orthodox protests are also a way to publicize their alleged plight which translates into more donations from supporters abroad. “They actually want the clashes,” Sheleg said. “The fundraisers can then go and say, ‘look how much we’re doing.’”

The overall number of ultra-Orthodox joining the IDF is still small and those who do serve are often ostracized by their communities or even attacked. It is not clear that the army even wants a large number of ultra-Orthodox recruits, as it has to make special arrangements for food that is more strictly kosher than the usual meals. They also refuse contact with women who are not from their families.

The haredi military exemptions are the result of a compromise made before Israel declared independence. In the wake of the decimation of Jewish scholarship during the Holocaust, representatives of the ultra-Orthodox in British Mandate Palestine asked the head of the Jewish community—and later Israel’s first prime minister—David Ben Gurion to allow a few hundred outstanding Torah scholars to be exempt from army service.

That number has ballooned to more than 60,000 today.

The deal has been maintained because the ultra-Orthodox political parties have often been essential to forming a coalition for both left-leaning and rightist governments. In exchange for their support, the haredim have been able to maintain the draft exemptions along with funding for their religious institutions.

Earlier this year, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the military exemption for haredim is unconstitutional and gave the government a year to come up with a new arrangement.

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