x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Law on ultra-Orthodox conscription approved in Israel

Israel's cabinet has approved a draft law to abolish wholesale exemptions from military duty granted to Jewish seminary students.

JERUSALEM // Israel's cabinet approved a draft law yesterday to abolish wholesale exemptions from military duty granted to Jewish seminary students.

Many Israelis have long bridled over state privileges handed to the conservative believers or "haredim", a Hebrew term meaning "those who tremble before God".

The debate heated up when elections in January saw strong performances for two parties who campaigned against the exemptions and created the first cabinet in a decade without ultra-Orthodox members.

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18, and often see active service in the occupied West Bank and other flashpoints.

But ultra-Orthodox men studying in seminaries, religious women and Arab citizens of Israel have been exempted.

Under the proposed law, only 1,800 of those students, designated "outstanding biblical scholars", would be exempted, out of the estimated 8,000 who become eligible for the draft every year.

"This is a stain on the State of Israel, which has become the only country in the world to determine that studying the scriptures is not legitimate," said the ultra-Orthodox legislator, Moshe Gafni.

Two months ago, some 30,000 Haredim in traditional black garb rallied to rabbis' calls against conscription reform and protested outside a military recruitment centre in Jerusalem.

Hoping to avoid any immediate confrontation, the government agreed to delay any sanctions against draft-dodgers by imposing a four-year interim period in which the military would encourage young Bible scholars to enlist.

"We will make this change gradually through consideration for the special needs of the ultra-Orthodox community," said the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, at the cabinet meeting, where ministers voted 14-0, with four abstentions, to approve the proposed law.

About 3,500 haredim serve in the military and a recent study by the economy ministry found that 70 per cent of ultra-orthodox soldiers entered the workforce after they completed their service. By contrast, only 45 per cent of all haredi men were employed, according to the central bank.

Haredim make up 10 per cent of Israel's eight million population and they are expanding rapidly, with families of 10 children becoming common.