Israel's ultra-Orthodox could lose exemption from army service

A landmark supreme court decision ends exemptions for ultra-Orthodox, a mushrooming group whose devotion to religious study instead of military service has led to accusations of freeloading.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks behind Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City on February 22. A landmark decision by the Israeli supreme court ends exemptions for ultra-Orthodox from army service.

In their eyes, the students at Jerusalem's Hebron Yeshiva are engaged in the most worthy task possible in this life: connecting with the will of the Almighty through study of holy texts.

While their secular peers wear the olive uniforms of the Israel Defense Forces, the students at this religious academy wear black felt skullcaps and white shirts with white strings, or tzitzit, hanging out as a reminder of 613 divine commandments. And while the society around them prides itself on being a high-tech bastion, the students of the yeshiva live without e-mails, iPhones, or TV – delving instead into the five books of Moses and subsequent interpretive and sacred texts.

''As a human being, I need to know what the Holy One Blessed Be He wants from me and that is why the Torah was given to us, that is why I study it,'' says Binyamin Gold, an affable student who comes from a family of 11 children. ''In every portion I see the approach of God, what he demands from me, how to behave morally, how to love him.''

Mr. Gold and his classmates are among an estimated 62,000 religious Israeli young men who are exempted from the country's mandatory military service. But that status is now in question, as Israel's ultra-Orthodox population expands rapidly, making secularists more restive. A landmark decision by the Israeli supreme court decision last week could significantly curb draft exemptions, which began relatively modestly shortly after Israel's founding in 1948.

The decision last week does away with a framework that in practice allowed for extensive draft exemptions. But some are skeptical that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be willing to go against the wishes of his religious partners, preventing any drastic changes.

'People see them as parasites'

Originally intended as a means to cultivate successors to the European luminaries of Jewish learning who were killed during the Holocaust, the exemptions today have become a contentious issue. Secular Israelis across the political spectrum are increasingly bitter about ultra-Orthodox who do not share in the burden of the country's defense: three years of army service for men and then reserve duty until well into one's 40s.

''People go every year to the reserves and risk their lives, undermine their businesses and are away from their families while others are not working, have a lot of kids, and are a burden on social services,'' says Uri Dromi, former spokesman for Yitzhak Rabin, the slain prime minister. ''Of course people see them as parasites.''

The regimen of learning and prayer at the Hebron Yeshiva is not for the lazy, however. It begins at 7:15 for morning prayers and lasts at least until 11:00 pm. On Sunday, even during the afternoon break, the spacious study hall resounded with students reading texts to themselves in a sing-song voice from the Talmud, a compendium of rabbinic discussions including rigorous legalistic argumentation dating back more than 1,500 years. Others animatedly discuss and debate interpretations of religious law with their havruta, or study partner.

''Sometimes we can spend a week on a line of text in the Talmud, in order to understand it to the end,'' says Gold. The head of the yeshiva lectures on the Talmud at noon each day, followed by afternoon prayers and lunch. Then there is a break before more study with one's havruta. Time before evening prayers is devoted to study of the Path of the Just, an 18th-century work on overcoming the inclination to sin and working to perfect one's character.

Only 400 exemptions originally

Draft waivers for the ultra-Orthodox began modestly. They go back nearly to the founding of Israel, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to 400 exemptions.

The ceiling was gradually raised until 1977, when then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin under pressure from religious coalition partners, agreed that anyone who studies in a religious seminary can be exempt.

Students counter the accusation that they are draft-dodgers, asserting that by learning the Torah they help induce divine intervention on Israel's behalf. ''We say there is another part of the war effort that is built on our studying and that in every military campaign there are those who fight and those who study,'' said a student who identified himself only as Arye.

But this view is incompatible with democracy, says Moshe Arens, a former defense minister.

''The idea of equal rights and obligations of all citizens is the basic tenet of every democratic society,'' he says. In Mr. Arens's view, the Israeli army now needs to expand an existing ultra-Orthodox unit, where prayer time is allowed and troops have no female instructors in accordance with religious strictures on modesty between the sexes. But Zahava Galon, head of the liberal Meretz party, proposes that the yeshiva students not be forced to serve in the army but rather be required to perform national service jobs in rescue services and hospitals.

The number of exemptions should be brought down to only 2,000, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said in recent public statements. But that result is seen as highly unlikely in the near term because of the opposition of Shas and Torah Judaism, two religious parties in the country's ruling coalition, and because such a swift, drastic change would not be accepted by the ultra-Orthodox.

''If there is any chance of an arrangement to be obeyed it must be gradual,'' says Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University.

At the yeshiva, Gold says he is not worried. ''The rabbis have declared that it won't happen and it doesn't bother me at all. It is political demagoguery. We are immersed in our studies and don't have time to think about such nonsense.''

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