By Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff
JERUSALEM — After a contentious national debate, the Israeli parliament passed a landmark bill Wednesday designed to end blanket exemptions of young ultra-Orthodox men from mandatory military service.
The issue had been the focus of intense public controversy in recent years, with critics of the exemptions calling for drafting the ultra-Orthodox for military or other national service as part of an equal “sharing of the burden” among all Israelis.
Under an arrangement reached in Israel’s early years, ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students were exempted from military service to allow them to pursue full-time religious studies, subsidized by the government.
But their ballooning numbers over the decades — reaching tens of thousands — generated increasing resentment among many Israelis who perform mandatory military service and annual reserve duty.
The demand for “sharing the burden” was a major focus of last year’s elections and the centerpiece of the campaign of Yesh Atid, which emerged as the second-largest party in Israel’s governing coalition and has led the drive for changes to the military draft.
“Today is the beginning of an historic change, and the change brought by this law already starts tomorrow morning,” Yaakov Peri, a Cabinet minister from Yesh Atid, told the legislature.
The new bill stops short of requiring universal conscription of young ultra-Orthodox men, but it does set quotas for a gradual increase in the annual draft of ultra-Orthodox Jews, with the goal of calling up 5,200 by mid-2017 — about 60 percent of those of draft age.
The bill passed 67-1 in the 120-member Knesset. Opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote to protest coalition efforts to assure a majority by passing the legislation as part of a package of three controversial bills this week.
The new bill was made necessary after Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the existing legislation governing ultra-Orthodox exemptions was unconstitutional.
The bill’s provision for criminal penalties against draft dodgers if the induction quotas are not met provoked outrage in the ultra-Orthodox community, where Torah study is venerated as a supreme value.
Last week, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed to the draft brought Jerusalem to a standstill with a mass prayer gathering to protest the legislation. Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested earlier this week in New York.
Leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community, about 10 percent of Israel’s population, have argued that the country’s Jewish character is preserved by those who devote their lives to religious study.
“Today the state of Israel lost the right to be called a Jewish state,” said Moshe Gafni, a prominent ultra-Orthodox legislator, adding that his constituents would neither “forget nor forgive” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the bill’s passage.
But Ayelet Shaked of the rightist Jewish Home party, who headed the committee that drafted the bill, called it “historic and important.”
“For 65 years there was an almost sweeping exemption for yeshiva students, but the coalition has submitted an amendment that is proportional, gradual and right,” she told parliament.
Jim Watkins via Flickr