Jerusalem - Israel's parliament on Wednesday voted to begin drafting large numbers of ultra-Orthodox men into the military, moving to end a contentious system that enraged many secular Israelis by allowing young seminary students to evade army service.
The legislation sought to resolve an issue at the heart of a heated culture war in Israel. Instead, it only widened the rift, drawing criticism from both sides. It also could shake Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's longstanding alliance with religious political parties.
The issue of draft exemptions goes back to the times around Israel's establishment in 1948, when the government allowed several hundred gifted students to pursue religious studies. The number of exemptions has grown over the years, with thousands of young religious men evading the draft to pursue seminary studies while most other Jewish men are conscripted for three years of mandatory service.
The exemptions have caused widespread resentment toward the ultra-Orthodox and were a central issue in parliamentary elections last year. Two parties that vowed to change the system, “Jewish Home” and “Yesh Atid,” scored strong gains and now sit in the center-right government.
“The change begins tomorrow morning and it is expected to transform the face of Israeli society,” said Yaakov Peri, a Cabinet minister from Yesh Atid, who helped spearhead the new legislation.
The ultra-Orthodox make up nearly 10 percent of Israel's 8 million people. Leaders insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage. Religious leaders have said the run-up to Wednesday's vote bordered on anti-religious incitement, and rallied opposition to the measure.
Last week, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis held a mass rally in Jerusalem. And early this week, tens of thousands of sympathizers held a solidarity rally in New York as well.
In a sign of their dismay, a number of ultra-Orthodox lawmakers stormed out during a speech by Netanyahu at the parliament Wednesday, ahead of an address by visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron. The lawmakers returned to the chamber after Netanyahu finished speaking.
Itzhak Vaknin, a lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, said he objected to the law because it includes criminal charges for those who do not obey.
He said it is “unacceptable ... that a Jew who studies the Torah is committing a felony.” He said the religious community understands there is a “great need” to participate. “But there is also a great duty to study the Torah, which is the essence of our existence,” he said.
Beyond the claims of fairness, proponents of the law say it is an essential step toward integrating the religious sector into the workforce. Many ultra-Orthodox men continue their full-time religious studies into adulthood, collecting welfare payments and other subsidies.
A high unemployment rate has led to widespread poverty in the ultra-Orthodox sector. Israel's central bank and international organizations have warned the country's economic future is in danger if the religious do not join the workforce in bigger numbers.
The draft issue is part of a broader debate about the role of religion in Israel.
The ultra-Orthodox have also come under fire for attempting at times to impose their conservative values, such as separation of men and women, on the broader population. Ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities also hold a monopoly over rituals like weddings and burials, drawing criticism from liberal or secular Jews who object to their strict standards.
The law does not impose universal conscription. Instead, the army will be required to draft an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews each year, with the goal of enlisting 5,200
ultra-Orthodox soldiers - roughly 60 percent of those of draft age - by mid-2017. Israel would grant financial incentives to religious seminaries that send their students to the army.
If the ultra-Orthodox community does not meet that quota, then law calls for mandatory service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and criminal sanctions for draft-dodgers.
If it does meet the targets, the government would be obliged to set higher ones for the following three years, said Inna
Dolzhansky, spokeswoman for Yesh Atid lawmaker Ofer Shelah.
Some secular groups complained that the legislation does not go far enough, since it will take three years to fully go into effect and because it falls short of the near-universal conscription required of other Israeli men.
“The law as it is written today will not lessen inequality. It will only heighten it,” said Zohara Tzoor, from the Forum to Share the Burden, one of two groups that appealed Wednesday to Israel's Supreme Court to overturn the law
Political scientist Avraham Diskin said the Supreme Court could challenge the law, much as it did by outlawing the previous system of draft exemptions. Lawmakers could also try to amend the law in the future.
Wednesday's vote passed 67-1 in the 120-member Knesset. Opposition lawmakers - all 52 of them - were absent, boycotting the vote to protest what they say are strong-arm tactics by the ruling coalition to push through a series of laws in parliament this week.
The votes this week have pitted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party against its traditional allies, the ultra-Orthodox, or “haredi,” parties, who were left out of the current coalition largely because of the draft reforms.
Ultra-Orthodox parties have traditionally joined the Likud in governing coalitions, or at least prevented more dovish parties from forming an alternative coalition. That could begin to change.
Aryeh Deri, leader of Shas, this week said he would support the secular leader of the Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, as the next prime minister.
Such an alliance would have been hard to imagine just weeks ago, and Herzog proudly declared in a parliamentary speech Wednesday that there is an “alternative” to Netanyahu.
Labor lawmaker Shelly Yachimovich welcomed Shas' support but said Labor must be “realistic.”
“I have heard these things many times, and at the end of the day and rightly so, the haredi politicians will act for the better of their public and will go with whoever wins the election,” she said.