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Israeli PM presses bill on drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into military

16-05-2024

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to present a highly contested bill that seeks to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military to a ministerial committee on Thursday.

His office said on Wednesday that Netanyahu sought to bridge societal and political divisions and that he was calling on all parties that had supported the proposed law in the previous parliament to back it once more.

The issue is especially sensitive this year amid an open-ended war in Gaza and related fighting on other fronts that have exacted the worst Israeli casualties – mostly among secular teenaged draftees and reservists in decades.

Netanyahu’s coalition includes two ultra-Orthodox parties that regard the exemptions as key to keeping their constituents in religious seminaries and away from a melting-pot military that might test their conservative values.

The issue has prompted protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 13% of Israel’s 10 million population, a figure expected to reach 19% by 2035. Their refusal to serve in wars they generally support is a long festering schism in Israeli society.

Economists argue that the conscription waiver keeps some of the ultra-Orthodox community unnecessarily out of the workforce, spelling a growing welfare burden for largely secular, middle-class taxpayers.

Israel’s 21% Arab minority is also largely exempted from the draft, under which men and women are generally called up at the age of 18, with men serving 32 months and women 24 months.

In March, thousands of Israelis took to the streets in Tel Aviv for separate protests demanding an immediate release of hostages from Gaza and calling for drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into the military.

The rallies, one of which briefly stopped traffic on a major thoroughfare, underlined growing societal divisions and heightened pressures on the government more than five months into the war against Hamas.

Some 10,000 people gathered at Habima Square in central Tel Aviv to protest against the government, focusing on support within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet for maintaining military draft exemptions granted to members of the ultra-Orthodox community.

The government is facing a court-imposed deadline to pass new legislation regulating or ending the draft exemptions, as plans to extend service terms for enlisted troops due to manpower strains brought on by the war in Gaza and fighting in the north reignite ire over the free pass granted to Haredi Jews.

Demonstrators held signs calling for an equal “sharing of the burden,” and emphasizing the shared fate between Israelis of various creeds, as well as posters urging the dissolution of the government and new elections.

“This is no longer a debate about ideals or values, we’re talking about a real need here,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid told Channel 12 news from the sidelines of the protest. “The Israel Defense Forces is as stretched as it can be and there are not enough soldiers, and at the same time there are 66,000 young and healthy members of the Haredi community, at enlistment age, who are not joining up.”

Netanyahu’s coalition relies on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torha Judaism, both of which are vociferously opposed to forcing Haredi men to serve in the military rather than study Jewish texts in a yeshiva.

Former general Noam Tibon, one of the main organizers of the rally, called on Benny Gantz and Gadi Eizenkot of the National Unity party to end their participation in the coalition, which they joined in order to support the war effort after the October 7 massacre. (Int’l News Desk)

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