Pressure mounts to end draft exemption for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox

July 6, 2012

(An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man sleeps as others study at a Yeshiva, a Jewish seminary, in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood May 24, 2012. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

One of the earliest decisions the Zionist leaders of the new state of Israel made in the late 1940s was to strike a deal with ultra-Orthodox rabbis from Eastern Europe to help preserve a traditional Jewish practice almost wiped out in the Holocaust.

Seeking political support from the rabbis, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt about 400 pious students from military service so they could devote themselves to lifetime study of the main Jewish scriptures, the Torah and the Talmud.

It seemed a small concession at the time.

Over six decades later, the once threatened ultra-Orthodox are a fast-growing underclass making up about 10 percent of Israel’s population. The original handful of students has ballooned to about 60,000 men supported by state handouts, occasional work and donations from family and friends.

Most ultra-Orthodox, whose men stand out due to their old-fashioned beards, black hats and long coats, say nothing should change. All men who want to devote their lives to Torah study, their rabbis say, should be able to do so.

But public opinion has turned strongly against the “Haredim” – a Hebrew term meaning “those who tremble before God” – as they have taken over neighbourhoods and imposed their rule, with zealots separating the sexes in buses, harassing women and spitting on little schoolgirls for wearing T-shirts.

The charge by many secular Israelis that the Torah students had become draft dodgers sponging off the state got a boost in February from the Supreme Court, which ruled that their military exemption was unfair and ordered reforms by August.

“We’ve reached the point in this country where people can’t put up with this anymore,” said Haim Amsellem, a parliamentary deputy who was expelled from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party two years ago after criticising his fellow Haredim for defending the Torah students against all critics.

“The best should study and the rest should work,” he told Reuters in his Knesset office.

Read the full story here.

For a slideshow of ultra-Orthodox life in Jerusalem, click on the picture below.

(Ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in a morning prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City May 31, 2012. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

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