Q&A: Israel’s ultra-Orthodox fight enlistment

While secular Israelis say they must equally ‘share the burden’, the ultra-Orthodox community has rejected army service.

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis protested forced conscription in Jerusalem in March [AP]

On Sunday, the Israeli military is set to jail an ultra-Orthodox 19-year-old for refusing to enlist in the army.

Uriel Ferera, who grew up in the southern town of Be’er Sheva, is a signatory to a recent letter signed by dozens of Israeli teenagers announcing their refusal to be soldiers. The main reason for their refusal, they wrote, is “opposition to the military occupation of Palestinian territories”. 

“I cannot participate in the anti-democratic occupation of Palestinian land by the military, [or] in the civil inequality between us and the Palestinians that live under Israeli rule. Every form of military service contributes to the conservation of the status quo, therefore my conscience does not allow me to take any part in this system,” Ferera told Israeli news magazine +972.

With opposition parties boycotting the vote, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed a law last month that cancels the long-standing military service exemption for the country’s ultra-Orthodox religious community.

The decision came after over 300,000 ultra-Orthodox Israelis (also known as haredim) took to the streets of Jerusalem against the proposal, and amid renewed tensions between the country’s religious and secular Jewish citizens.

All Jewish Israelis are required to serve in the military, with men serving three years and women two. Palestinian citizens of the state are exempt from joining the army, while male members of the Druze minority are forcibly conscripted and Bedouin citizens may volunteer.

Since Israel’s creation in 1948, members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community were exempt from serving in the military, instead opting for full-time Jewish study in yeshivot, or religious schools. Over the last several years, however, there has been a growing demand among the Israeli public for ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the army and “share the burden”.

Originally passed in 2002, Israel’s Tal Law had previously legislated their exemption from the military. But in February 2012, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Tal Law was unconstitutional.

Under the new legislation, an annual quota for ultra-Orthodox enlistment will be set, with a target of having 5,200 in the army by 2017. If this goal is not met, the government has threatened draft-dodgers with criminal penalties, including jail time.

Al Jazeera spoke to Rabbi Yitzhak Pindrus, the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a city councillor with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, about the ultra-Orthodox community’s reaction to the recently passed law, the law’s impact on Israeli society, and what people expect will happen should they refuse to serve.

Al Jazeera: The ultra-Orthodox conscription bill passed by a vote of 67-1 on March 12. What is the feeling among the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel to this?

Yitzhak Pindrus: The feeling is that we got stabbed in the back… by the right-wing parties in Israel.

AJ: So you didn’t expect this law?

YP: First of all, [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Economy Minister Naftali] Bennett promised that it won’t happen. It’s not that we didn’t expect it; they promised that it wouldn’t happen. We didn’t expect it from any government, but for sure not from someone who we were partners [with] for years.

AJ: Does this mean then that there will be a split between the ultra-Orthodox and the ruling coalition of right-wing, nationalist parties?

YP: No doubt. Politically speaking, any way that the Orthodox community could get a [centre-left] Labour [party] government in Israel, they would do it.

The whole idea of this law… is to delegitimise the ultra-Orthodox community. They all know it’s not going to bring more soldiers to the army.

AJ: Why are ultra-Orthodox Israelis opposed to military service?

YP: We’re not opposed to military service. We’re for… it being available for a young Jew to study Talmud [Jewish religious law]. We’re not against military service. We think it’s a very nice thing and a very important thing to serve in the army, but we think it’s more important to sit and study. If a student is willing to sacrifice his life to sit and study Talmud, then he should be allowed to do it.

AJ: Part of this law stipulates that ultra-Orthodox men who refuse army service will be jailed. Do you believe this will happen?

YP: If the Israeli government and the Israeli economy will be prepared to put in 50-60-70,000 people into jail… it’s not something that will change anyone’s mind. The Orthodox community is united on this issue, and thinks it should be available for every boy who wants to sit and study, to do it.

The whole idea of this law, the whole idea of this thing, is to delegitimise the ultra-Orthodox community. They all know it’s not going to bring more soldiers to the army. They know it’s not going to change the way of life, the culture, the communes of life of an Orthodox Jew. A law is not going to change it.

I don’t know of any place in the world that a tradition was changed by law. It doesn’t work. 

AJ: Members of the ultra-Orthodox community had, in recent years, increasingly joined as volunteers in Israel’s national service programme. Do you believe that this law will stem that involvement?

YP: It is for sure something that’s going to happen. I mean, no doubt, it’s not going to unite the Orthodox community and non-Orthodox community. For sure, there is a split. For sure, there are difficult feelings about what’s going on.

If people thought to go and volunteer [before], they’ll think twice. These are things that are going on, unfortunately, because as I said, the whole idea was to delegitimise. When a group tries to delegitimise you, it doesn’t give you a great feeling to volunteer for him. 

AJ: After the Knesset bill was passed, Minister Shai Piron said that by avoiding military and civilian service, the ultra-Orthodox are “separating from Israeli society”. What is your response to this claim?

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community prioritise full-time Torah study over military service [EPA]

YP: This law for sure separated the Israeli society. This law for sure separated between Orthodox and non-Orthodox in the Israeli society. That’s just what Shai Piron is trying to do. He’s [been] saying it very clear, and very loud, for a long time. He and his Yesh Atid party [are] trying to say that the Orthodox community is not legitimate.

This is a style of life that has been going on for 3,800 years. It’s not something that happened yesterday and it’s not something that Mr Piron or Mr Bennett or Mr [Yair] Lapid [leader of Yesh Atid], or Mr Netanyahu are going to change.

We believe that the most important thing is to study the Torah. Unfortunately only 10 percent, even less than 10 percent, put their time and their lives for studying the Bible. We think these people should be admired. We think that the future of the Jewish nation and even the existence of the Jewish nation is by having this tradition.

That’s not something that’s going to change.

AJ: The argument is often – especially among secular Israelis – that the ultra-Orthodox community must equally “share the burden”, and therefore must join the military. What is your response to this?

YP: I think the existence of the Jewish nation and the future of the Jewish nation is depending [on] having our tradition being carried on. I think that’s the biggest thing that we can share for the Jewish nation.

That’s why I think it’s not equal because not everyone is doing it, not everyone is sharing that mission. There is a small minority that is doing that mission, and I think that… it should be available for them to do that mission.

The Israeli state is here for the Jewish nation. It’s not the Jewish nation [that] is here for the Israeli state. I think these people, by law, have to be the most important thing in the Jewish state.

AJ: Economy Minister Bennett has linked military service to boosting the economic standing of the ultra-Orthodox community, which currently sits at one of the lowest socioeconomic levels. Do you believe that by joining the army, the economic and employment status of ultra-Orthodox Israelis will improve?

YP: As a minister – he’s a minister of employment – I think he’s running away from his job. He should help people get jobs. That’s what’s going to help the economy. Going to the army is not what’s going to change the economy, and that’s not going to help a person get a good salary.

He should help Orthodox women get jobs… instead of trying to create all kinds of laws that have nothing to do with the economy.

AJ: Earlier in March, about 300,000 ultra-Orthodox men protested in Jerusalem against conscription. Do you foresee similar protests in the future? What strategy is the community taking to stop forced conscription?

YP: Because the law is not something that’s going to really change anything. The people who passed the law know that. The army knows that. It was a statement saying that if in three years, not enough will go [to the army], we’ll put all the Orthodox in jail. This is something that’s insane.

I don’t know what country in the last 10-20 years put a whole group of people, 50-60-100,000 people, into jail. It didn’t happen [and] it’s not going to happen in Israel.

That prayer, that we prayed and got all together [in Jerusalem], was a statement. We did that as a statement. Whatever steps will be taken by the other side, we’re going to have to respond. What they did was a statement, [and] what we did was a statement. It really depends on them.

Source: Al Jazeera

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