Israel’s ultra-Orthodox protest draft bill

The ultra-Orthodox community has traditionally been allowed to avoid the military draft – to the anger of secular Jews.

Israeli police closed the main highway into Jerusalem and the city’s central roads ahead of a mass rally by ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting government plans to draft them into the army.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews from across the country took to the streets on Sunday afternoon in Jerusalem against a government proposal that could enforce a community-wide draft and criminal sanctions for draft dodgers.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 3,500 police officers were deployed for the rally. He said the central bus station was closed and nearly all public buses into the city were halted. In addition, public transportation inside the city was being limited from afternoon until night.

Some schools and government ministries were also closed early and, in an unusual move, ultra-Orthodox community leaders encouraged women and young children to attend, closing a major road for the use of women to maintain the separation of the sexes.

With secular Jews required to serve, the issue is one of the most sensitive flashpoints between Israel’s secular majority and its devout minority.

Politician Yaakov Peri, who has been involved in drafting the bill on ultra-Orthodox enlistment, said Sunday’s rally was “part of the revolution of consciousness in the ultra-Orthodox society, which has understood that after 65 years, there will be a law that will regulate the draft of ultra-Orthodox and integrate them into Israeli society.”

According to the draft bill up for a vote in Israel’s parliament, only a fraction of eligible ultra-Orthodox Jews would be expected to serve, said Inna Dolzhansky, spokeswoman for lawmaker Ofer Shelah, a member of the committee drafting the bill.

Criminal sanctions

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 by mid-2017.

Israel would grant financial incentives to religious seminaries that send their students to the army, she said.

If the ultra-Orthodox community does not meet that quota by then, according to the bill, universal service for ultra-Orthodox Jews would be required and criminal sanctions would be imposed for draft-dodgers.

The issue of army service is at the core of a cultural conflict surrounding the place of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israeli society. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about eight percent of Israel’s eight million citizens, largely have been allowed to skip compulsory military service to pursue their religious studies.

The exemption has angered secular Israelis who say the ultra-Orthodox are dodging the nation’s draft.

The issue featured prominently in last year’s election, which led to the establishment of a center-right government that has been pushing for reforms that will require ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army.

Last month, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews blocked highways across Israel and clashed with police in violent protests after the Supreme Court ordered funding halted to ultra-Orthodox seminaries whose students avoid the draft.

Not all ultra-Orthodox oppose enlistment, with the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews serving in the army has increased in recent years.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies