Israeli ultra-Orthodox exempted from army

After 2 years of debate, divided parliament votes to legalize the tradition

July 24, 2002|By Henry Chu | Henry Chu,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JERUSALEM - Over the bitter objections of those who call it discriminatory, the Israeli parliament legalized yesterday the tradition of exempting thousands of religious men from having to serve in the military.

Under the law, which squeaked through a divided Knesset, ultra-Orthodox men are allowed to skip the compulsory military service that marks a rite of passage for the vast majority of Israel's youth.

Instead, Israel's haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, are entitled to take a year off from their yeshiva studies at age 22 to ponder whether they want to return to a life of religious contemplation or serve an abbreviated or modified form of military service. Either way, they would be spared the full, three-year tour of duty required of most young men and women after they turn 18.

The Knesset's vote capped two years of debate that further divided the religious and the secular in Israel, a split one legislator described as "two worlds, two poles: heaven and earth."

The haredim say their study of the Torah is crucial for Jews to flourish and to ensure God's continued protection. They also fear that mixing with non-observant Jews, especially women, would expose them to the seductions of the world.

Many secular Jews, however, complain that the ultra-Orthodox enjoy the protection of the Israeli military without contributing anything to it. Opponents of the so-called Tal bill took out full-page ads in Israel's main daily newspapers denouncing it as a state-sanctioned way for Israelis to dodge the draft.

"The Tal bill discriminates between blood. The Tal bill violates the principle of equality, which is the foundation of democracy," the ad said. "The people of Israel will remember on Election Day who sold them out to the haredim," the advertisement warned.

Parliament members from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party voted en bloc for the bill. Despite some differences of opinion within the party, Likud leaders demanded strict compliance on the vote, which helped ensure its passage.

Two years ago, Sharon spoke passionately against the proposal when it was introduced by his rival, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But as with Barak then, Sharon needs the support of Israel's right-wing legislators to stay in power. Yesterday, he voted in favor of the bill with "a heavy heart," acknowledging that the legislation fell short of offering "true equality."

Such equality has not prevailed in military service since Israel was founded in 1948. Then, David Ben-Gurion allowed about 400 yeshiva students to defer joining the army. The exception became the status quo, with those now excused from military service numbering about 30,000.

But in 1999, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the haredim could no longer enjoy automatic exemption from military service, which forced the Knesset to confront the issue.

The ensuing debate cut to the heart of the paradox many Israelis are constantly trying to reconcile: how Israel can be a Jewish and democratic state at the same time.

"The state is not doing yeshiva students a favor by letting them study" instead of serving in the military, said Knesset member Shmuel Halpert, an ultra-Orthodox Jew. "They are studying not for themselves, but for the whole people of Israel, and Israel needs them more than they need Israel."

Henry Chu writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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