Ultra-Orthodox lose call-up exemption in Israeli U-turn
PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given the go-ahead to reforms that would end the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from compulsory military service, in an about-face hours after 20,000 Israelis marched for change.
Military service is a highly emotive issue for Israelis, most of whom start a two or three-year service at the age of 18. Many are also called up for reserve duty. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men are exempt to allow them to pursue religious studies.
“Everyone must bear the burden. We will provide positive incentives to those who serve and negative incentives to draft dodgers,” Mr Netanyahu yesterday told a meeting of MPs from his right-wing Likud party.
At his urging, the Likud legislators ratified the recommendations of a government-appointed panel formulating a new military conscription law that would cancel exemptions for most Jewish seminary students.
The issue has put huge strain on Mr Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. Only last Monday and under pressure from religious leaders, the prime minister dismissed the panel, headed by Yohanan Plesner, a member of the centrist Kadima party that is the biggest partner in the coalition.
The committee went ahead and issued its report two days later, in defiance of Mr Netanyahu and with the support of Kadima leader and vice premier Shaul Mofaz, who issued veiled threats to quit the government only two months after joining it.
About 20,000 people marched in Tel Aviv on Saturday night calling for an “equal sharing of the national burden” and demanding Mr Netanyahu change course and back the committee’s proposals.
Political commentators said Mr Netanyahu’s perceived siding with ultra-Orthodox parties – traditional partners in Israel’s ruling coalitions – was a rare misjudgment of the national mood by a popular leader.
The countdown to what Mr Netanyahu yesterday called “historic change” started in February, when the Supreme Court struck down the conscription law that allowed the exemptions, effectively giving parliament until 1 August to pass a new one.
“It is a once-in-a-decades opportunity and the prime minister is wasting it away,” Boaz Nol, one of the organisers of the Tel Aviv march, said on Saturday.
The theme of the protest, spearheaded by military reservists who set up a tent city outside a Tel Aviv train station, was that Israelis were tired of being suckers and serving in the military while religious seminary students did not.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, approved a policy of exempting what was then a small group of 400 ultra-Orthodox seminary students. The original handful has grown to about 60,000 men largely supported by state hand-outs.
Defending the exemptions, religious leaders say such studies strengthen Jewish traditions and the Jewish state.
This resentment has fuelled a broader, high-decibel culture war. In recent months, secular activists have rebelled against what they consider growing religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox, such as attempts to enforce gender segregation on buses and public places, and a religious backlash by ultra-Orthodox who feel unfairly persecuted.
The Plesner panel recommended slashing exemptions for seminary students from a present 50,000 to 1,500 by 2016. It also proposed stiff financial penalties for draft evaders.
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