Israel is not a nation known for peace, but after a massive political demonstration, perhaps it is on the way to being a nation known for teamwork. In a highly religious, and (mostly) peaceful strike, hundreds of thousands of Jews gathered to say no to the prospect of being drafted. Most of Jerusalem was shut down as the ultra-Orthodox population banded together with hope that their point of view would be heard; for decades, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have been entirely exempt from the draft, but the government has decided this policy needs changing. Needless to say, the ultra-Orthodox Jews have seen this proposed change of policy as a major infringement of their rights. The main prop of the enormous gathering seemed to be holy books, and the protest cries sounded more like prayers than angry demands, but in spite of the gentle approach, those who attended feel strongly about the situation, and are committed to keeping things the way they are.
For more than 60 years, the ultra-Orthodox population has been exempt from the draft. However, as the number of those falling into that religious category has grown, politicians and economists have begun to worry that the exemption was a mistake. This proposed change comes after decades of allowing Israel to become comfortable in the fact that ultra-Orthodox Jews may exist without worrying about things like serving time in the military, but according to political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld, part of the equation has been ignored. She says that “nearly everyone” has been benefiting from a condition that was originally only meant for an Elite group of Torah students. However, the general feeling among the ultra-Orthodox is that being forced into the military goes against their traditional way of life.
If the massive strike ends up having it’s intended effect, the government will still be charged with trying to accommodate those who disagree with the benefits that the ultra-Orthodox receive. It is the opinion of the current Israeli government that bringing the ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military will integrate them more deeply into society. But in addition to the question of whether ultra-Orthodox Israelis should be made to serve, there is also the pressing matter of the other perks they receive, and how that has angered those who do not receive the same treatment.
Ultra-Orthodox families receive the benefit of subsidies, which allow most men to avoid working traditional jobs. Historically, ultra-Orthodox Jews have become accustomed to lives that are contrary to the culture of modern society, and certainly modern military practices. Even in the stressful circumstances of putting together a giant rally, the ultra-Orthodox remained faithful to their rules about keeping women segregated from men; women and children were stationed in a location that allowed them to participate while remaining separate from the men.
If the proposed draft bill is enacted, up to 5,200 ultra-Orthodox men may potentially be serving in the military by 2017, and those who dodge the draft will be subject to criminal sanctions. While the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews say they are against the potential obligation of the Israeli military, there is a small, but increasing percentage of ultra-Orthodox men who have no problem with the prospect of serving and have already joined up. In spite of the giant strike that closed down most of Jerusalem, the Israeli government still hopes to make this massive prospective change a reality in hopes that the ultra-Orthodox will be woven more deeply into society. Those not benefiting from the exemption also hope the playing field will be evened; Israel currently faces a great backlash from secular Jews with no benefits that measure up to that of the ultra-Orthodox population.
By Bonnie Sludikoff