Pressure on to end draft exemption for Israel's ultra-Orthodox

Fri Jul 6, 2012 9:08am EDT
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By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - One of the earliest decisions the Zionist leaders of the new state of Israel made in the late 1940s was to strike a deal with ultra-Orthodox rabbis from Eastern Europe to help preserve a traditional Jewish practice almost wiped out in the Holocaust.

Seeking political support from the rabbis, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt about 400 pious students from military service so they could devote themselves to lifetime study of the main Jewish scriptures, the Torah and the Talmud.

It seemed a small concession at the time.

Over six decades later, the once threatened ultra-Orthodox are a fast-growing underclass making up about 10 percent of Israel's population. The original handful of students has ballooned to about 60,000 men supported by state handouts, occasional work and donations from family and friends.

Most ultra-Orthodox, whose men stand out due to their old-fashioned beards, black hats and long coats, say nothing should change. All men who want to devote their lives to Torah study, their rabbis say, should be able to do so.

But public opinion has turned strongly against the "Haredim" - a Hebrew term meaning "those who tremble before God" - as they have taken over neighborhoods and imposed their rule, with zealots separating the sexes in buses, harassing women and spitting on little schoolgirls for wearing T-shirts.

The charge by many secular Israelis that the Torah students had become draft dodgers sponging off the state got a boost in February from the Supreme Court, which ruled that their military exemption was unfair and ordered reforms by August.

"We've reached the point in this country where people can't put up with this anymore," said Haim Amsellem, a parliamentary deputy who was expelled from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party two years ago after criticizing his fellow Haredim for defending the Torah students against all critics.   Continued...

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at Jerusalem's Mir Yeshiva, the largest Jewish seminary in Israel July 4, 2012. The ultra-Orthodox Jews have gone from being a tiny minority in Israel's mostly secular society to its fastest-growing sector, now about 10 percent of the 7.8 million population. They are exempt from military duty in Israel but draft deferments and state subsidies for the ultra-Orthodox have become a divisive political issue in Israel, where the government must decide a new law by August to ensure more of them do military service. Picture taken July 4, 2012. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun