Is­rael rul­ing on army ser­vice for re­li­gious sparks anger, de­bate

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

An Is­raeli Supreme Court de­ci­sion that could force ul­tra-Ortho­dox cit­i­zens to serve in the army like their sec­u­lar coun­ter­parts sparked anger from re­li­gious lead­ers yes­ter­day and reignited a sen­si­tive po­lit­i­cal de­bate. Tues­day’s de­ci­sion strikes down a law ex­empt­ing ul­tra­Ortho­dox men en­gaged in re­li­gious study from mil­i­tary ser­vice, say­ing it un­der­mines equal­ity. The de­ci­sion raises the pos­si­bil­ity that they could be forced into ser­vice, a highly con­tentious propo­si­tion with po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions.

The court how­ever sus­pended its de­ci­sion for one year to al­low for prepa­ra­tions for the new ar­range­ment-which also pro­vides the govern­ment with the op­por­tu­nity to pass a new law. Ul­tra-Ortho­dox po­lit­i­cal par­ties and their al­lies in govern­ment are likely to draft new leg­is­la­tion that could seek to over­ride the court rul­ing and keep the ex­emp­tion in place. The ul­tra­Ortho­dox par­ties form a key part of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu’s gov­ern­ing coali­tion and have of­ten acted as king­mak­ers in Is­raeli pol­i­tics.

Around 10 per­cent of Is­rael’s eight mil­lion peo­ple are con­sid­ered ul­tra-Ortho­dox. Health Min­is­ter Yaakov Litz­man, whose ul­tra-Ortho­dox United To­rah Ju­daism al­liance is part of Ne­tanyahu’s coali­tion, ac­cused the court of seek­ing to top­ple the coali­tion. He called the rul­ing “one of the worst, most wretched ju­di­cial de­crees that will en­ter the long his­tory of per­se­cu­tions of the Jewish peo­ple,” ul­tra-Ortho­dox news­pa­per Hamodia re­ported. In­te­rior Min­is­ter Aryeh Deri, of the ul­tra-Ortho­dox Shas party, said “the Supreme Court is to­tally cut off from our (Jewish) her­itage and tra­di­tion.”

The is­sue is part of a decades-old de­bate over whether young ul­tra­Ortho­dox men study­ing at sem­i­nar­ies should per­form manda­tory mil­i­tary ser­vice like the rest of Is­rael’s Jewish pop­u­la­tion. Af­ter reach­ing age 18, men must serve two years and eight months, while women must serve for two. In 2015, law­mak­ers passed leg­is­la­tion ex­tend­ing their ex­emp­tion from duty, re­vers­ing a law passed the pre­vi­ous year that would have seen it ex­pire.

Is­rael’s first prime min­is­ter David BenGu­rion ini­tially granted the ex­emp­tion in the early years of the state founded in 1948, which at the time in­volved only 400 stu­dents. The ul­tra-Ortho­dox are how­ever to­day among the fastest-grow­ing seg­ments of Is­rael’s pop­u­la­tion, with pro­jec­tions that they could ac­count for onequar­ter of the to­tal by 2050.

‘Not just for suck­ers’

They op­pose serv­ing for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, with the most ex­treme be­liev­ing a Jewish state is not al­lowed be­fore the com­ing of the Mes­siah. Oth­ers ar­gue that yeshiva study is just as im­por­tant to Is­rael as mil­i­tary ser­vice or that ul­tra-Ortho­dox sol­diers would be con­fronted with salty lan­guage and other un­re­li­gious be­hav­ior. Yair Lapid, the head of the cen­trist Yesh Atid party who pushed to re­move the ex­emp­tion as part of the pre­vi­ous govern­ment in 2014, wel­comed the court’s de­ci­sion as a vic­tory of “val­ues.”

Lapid, now in the op­po­si­tion, also crit­i­cized Ne­tanyahu, say­ing the prime min­is­ter could not con­tinue to avoid the is­sue and that “con­scrip­tion is for ev­ery­one, not just for the suck­ers who don’t have a party in the coali­tion.” Is­raeli me­dia re­ported that the ul­tra-Ortho­dox par­ties were to meet on Wed­nes­day to plot a way for­ward af­ter the de­ci­sion. But many an­a­lysts said it was un­likely to pro­voke a coali­tion cri­sis, with Ne­tanyahu hav­ing sided with the ul­tra-Ortho­dox par­ties on a range of is­sues re­cently.

A de­ci­sion in June to scrap a deal to al­low women and men to pray to­gether at the Western Wall pro­voked heavy crit­i­cism of Ne­tanyahu, who was ac­cused of aban­don­ing re­form ef­forts for po­lit­i­cal gain. The ul­tra-Ortho­dox par­ties bit­terly op­posed the deal for mixed-gen­der prayer at the site in Jerusalem, the holi­est where Jews are al­lowed to pray, since it vi­o­lates their strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Jewish law. “Let’s put mat­ters in pro­por­tion. This is not a po­lit­i­cal earth­quake, not at this stage,” po­lit­i­cal columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Is­rael’s Maariv news­pa­per. “Al­most no­body has the en­ergy for elec­tions at the moment.” —AFP

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