Up to 500,000 protesters showed up in the streets of Jerusalem Sunday in outrage at the proposed Israeli military draft of ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim, who have previously been exempt from the state’s service. Although most Israeli men and women over the age of 18 are required to serve in the military for up to three years, ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women have always been exempt, as their strong religious practices and beliefs have been considered to take precedence.
The exemption goes back to a post World War II deal made between Haredi leaders and Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in the 1950’s. The sentiment, at the time, was studying and rebuilding the religious culture of Judaism was necessary after it had been so damaged by the chaos and tragedies of the Holocaust. Hence, small groups of young ultra-Orthodox children began study at religious schools known as yeshivas and remained out of the grasp of the Israeli military.
Over time, these groups of Haredim have grown larger and larger, to the point where practically the entire community of ultra-Orthodox Jews remain out the Israeli military service. In the rare instance that a Haredi youth joins up with the service, they are frowned upon by their peers and elders, oftentimes being persecuted by their own cultural group. The society of the ultra-Orthodox believes that religion comes first and that their salvation lies with the sole study of the holy Jewish scriptures of the Torah.
Now that the legislation, originally created by Ben-Gurion expired in 2012, ultra-Orthodox men and women are being asked to take up with the military as well. This new legislation is intended, not only to enlist the Haredim into the military, but also to end certain benefits they that have been available to them for a long time. For example ultra-Orthodox Jews have not been required to join the work force and have been allowed to receive full time education at the expense of the taxpayers.
Sunday’s mass protest is clearly a backlash against such new legislation. The Haredim feel these new laws are a suppression and criminalization of religious study. Ultra-Orthodox Jews of all backgrounds showed up in support against the bill, which was recently passed by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Although the protest was basically peaceful, including many participants simply reciting prayer in hopes of divine intervention, there have been actual death threats targeted towards leaders of this change.
In a month, all ultra-Orthodox youth of the appropriate age will now be faced with being drafted into the Israeli military service. However, there will also be the option of civil service in the fire department, paramedics, or caring for senior citizens. This change is seen by many, including proponent Finance Minister Yair Lapid, as a way of strengthening the economic workforce of Israel. It is a chance to bring the ultra-Orthodox community over the poverty line, under which the majority of them have suffered for eons with large families and little to no income. Finally, the draft represents a step forward in equality for the bulk of Israeli men and women who have not had the liberty of such exemptions.
By Josh Taub