How To Serve: Israelis Debate Military Exemptions

In Israel, a country where citizens serve a mandatory military service of two to three years, the exemption of some has become a topic of heated debate. It’s fiercer now, after the Supreme Court struck down a law which had excused ultra-Orthodox Jews from serving in the military.

The decision highlights growing tensions between the religious and secular elements of Israeli society. As the ultra-Orthodox population continues to grow, many are asking what part they will play in the Jewish state.

‘They Need To Contribute Too’

It’s raining heavily on a Israeli military base just outside Tel Aviv. It’s a sprawling site where new recruits to the Israeli military report for duty.

This week, the base was packed after the semi-annual conscription order was issued. Zehava Engel braved the rain to bring her nephew, who’s to become a combat soldier. She couldn’t help noticing the lack of ultra-orthodox recruits.

“Everyone should be enlisting, including the ultra-Orthodox. I don’t care what kind of service they do. They live in this country they need to contribute too,” she says in Hebrew.

Engel says she’s furious that many in Israel are given special treatment, while she, her daughters and the rest of their family are compelled to enlist.

Service Through Prayer

The Tal Law granted exemptions to tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox, but failed — according to the court — to find alterative means for them to contribute to the state.

Shmuel Jakobovits, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who lives in a Jerusalem suburb, says he’s not surprised the law was a failure. He says that the ultra-Orthodox see their role through prayer, not military service.

“What is primary remains the study of Torah. If we focus only on military defense and the like,” he says, “we may go the way of most nations of the world who have thrived for a time and then disappeared.”

While secular citizens see army service and other duties as crucial to the protection of the state, Jacobovits says the ultra-Orthodox believe their devotion and way of life is what protects the state, through the intervention of God.

It’s a view that many Israelis reject.

Jakobovits sees the problem. He says that as the ultra-Othodox community grows, it will have to find a compromise.

“You can’t be a veritable majority without dealing with broader issues that deal with the defense of the country,” he says.

Some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have suggested that their population can serve in the military if they are assigned to special, male-only bases, where they can continue to live according to their strict religious code. Secular Israelis, however, have rallied against what they call special treatment for the Orthodox.

In This Together?

At one rally, held in a northern Israeli high school, student demonstrators chant that Israel should be one state for all citizens. They are against all exemptions, including those for Arab citizens of Israel and conscientious objectors, as well as the ultra-Orthodox.

In a speech last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to work out a compromise with the religious parties in his government. His opponents say he is capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox, and will continue to give them exemptions. His supporters say he’s determined to find a way forward.

This week, popular Israeli newscaster Moav Verdi visited the ultra-Orthodox community of Bnei Brak, outside Tel Aviv. In the street outside Bnei Brak’s largest yeshiva, or religious institution, he got into a verbal tussle with Yonatan Oppenheimer, the deputy head of the yeshiva.

Verdi accused the ultra-Orthodox man of behaving as though they were outside the laws of the state. He asked whether they were trying to start a war among brothers.

Oppenheimer quickly retorted that they were not brothers.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.