An Israeli law that exempts ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students from military service expired on Wednesday under a court ruling, a highly emotive issue that has shaken Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government.
The majority of Israeli men and women are obliged to serve in the military from their 18th year and there is growing pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strip religious students of their draft exemption, one of the social privileges reserved for many ultra-Orthodox.
But Netanyahu’s coalition partners have been unable to overcome differences with influential religious parties to reform the law. Last month, his largest coalition partner, the centrist Kadima party, quit in protest over his rejection of proposed legislation to curtail the draft exemptions.
The August 1 expiry of the so-called Tal Law, which Israel’s High Court found unconstitutional earlier this year, was unlikely to have any immediate effect on army demographics.
Israel had for years been exempting most ultra-Orthodox Jews from military duty before the law was adopted a decade ago, by giving generals the discretion to choose new recruits.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the Israeli military would continue to seek a plan to reform the draft, to codify what he called a “principle of burden equality, and the duty to deal individually with each and every new recruit.”
In the meantime, judging by the scene outside the main draft board office in Jerusalem, military recruitment deferrals seemed to be available as usual, with observant Jewish men wearing traditional clothing queuing up for their notices.
“You need to fight physically and you need to fight spiritually, so the spiritual role is played by the yeshivas,” one of the young men told Reuters, explaining why he thought religious men did not need to serve in Israel’s armed forces.
Mickey Gitzin, an Israeli activist opposed to draft exemptions, said in an interview: “It doesn’t matter whether someone is ultra-Orthodox or not, anyone who lives here, as long as there is a mandatory draft, should be recruited.”
Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up about a fifth of the population, are also largely exempted from military duty. Many Israeli Arabs are related to Palestinians or other Arabs living in neighboring countries.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)