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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men harvest wheat in a field near the Israeli town of Modiin. (GIL COHEN MAGEN/GIL COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men harvest wheat in a field near the Israeli town of Modiin. (GIL COHEN MAGEN/GIL COHEN MAGEN/REUTERS)

Israel's latest battle pits ultra-Orthodox Jews against most other Israelis Add to ...

Israelis are bracing for war.

No, not against Iran, nor against Hezbollah, nor Hamas.

This battle will be between Israel’s growing Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population, who resist change to their religious lifestyle, and the vast majority of Israelis who want to see the Haredim subject to the same military draft they are.

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At the beginning of the Israeli state, in 1948, there was concern that Orthodox communities might set up their yeshivot (religious schools) in North America and Europe rather than in Israel. So a deal was worked out whereby the Haredim could defer their military service for a time if they were fully engaged in religious studies.

Things evolved, however, and the number of these yeshivot rose dramatically and the number of young men able to dodge the military draft soared. As well, deferrals became exemptions as the young men continued to study well into adulthood. And the ultra-Orthodox communities began their own political parties to ensure the government continued to protect the Haredi lifestyle.

Israel’s highest court ruled earlier this year that such a skewed military draft was unconstitutional as it placed an unfair burden on those Israelis who are conscripted into service. It gave the government until August 1 to bring in a new system that is fair and constitutional.

Shimon Peres, now Israel’s President, was 24 when he was asked by David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, to negotiate an arrangement with the Haredi leadership that would keep their religious schools in the aspiring Jewish state yet allow a proportion of their men to serve.

The original arrangement, Mr. Peres said in a Globe and Mail interview earlier this month, “was only boys [not adult men]studying in the yeshiva would be exempted from military service.”

“The number [of anticipated exemptions]was 100, 200, 300 persons [a year]” Mr. Peres said.

“In the meantime,” he said, “politics came in and ‘hundreds’ became ‘thousands’.”

As well, Mr. Peres pointed out, “the original deal said the minute you stop studying, you have to go to work [or military service]”

Resentment by the rest of Israeli society has grown as the number of Haredi exemptions soared. Not only do people think it unfair that ultra-Orthodox men are not serving in the same numbers as others, but they also resent the government contributions to welfare for the Haredim since their men, to a very large degree, eschew working for a living.

When the leading opposition Kadima party last week entered into a national unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, one of the two non-negotiable terms of the deal was that the government would bring in, by August, a new system for drafting all Israelis.

To that end a special committee was struck to sift through proposals and come up with recommended legislation. It started meetings this week, but the Haredi parties refused to send representatives.

It’s quite possible that the two main Haredi parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – both of whom are members of the coalition, will resign from the government over this issue, taking their 16 members of Knesset with them. Thanks to the new coalition with Kadima, the government can sustain such a loss and retain its majority.

It’s important to recall, however, that the ultra-Orthodox never supported the establishment of a Jewish state, the creation of which was largely the product of efforts by the secular Zionist movement.

In general, the Haredim viewed Zionist efforts as a rebellion against the Almighty. For them, preserving the religious rules of diet, dress, marriage, divorce and burial were more important than a state and were put in jeopardy by a modern, secular state. Indeed, the Hebrew word Haredi means to fear the word of the Almighty.

Over the years, these people formed political parties and mobilized their communities to vote, but only to preserve their way of life.

Since it also has been traditional for most Haredi men not to work at making a living, but to devote themselves to religious studies, the political parties, often holding the balance of power in coalition governments, also became useful for extracting financial concessions from governments wanting to stay in power.

With a birthrate several times that of other Jewish Israelis, the Haredim have an average of 8.9 children per family and constitute more than 10 per cent of the population of seven million.

With such numbers the majority of Israelis no longer think the public support for the Haredi lifestyle is viable.

That may be, but the Haredim have faced more ruthless enemies before. They are prepared to fight and even to die for the sake of their beliefs. Any attempt to formulate a law that seeks simply to draft their men into the army must bear that in mind. As a result, we are likely to see a system that seeks to encourage voluntary enlistment rather than forced conscription. Such a compromise may fall short of what the people, the government and the court expect.

For his part, President Peres is personally encouraging the religious communities to accept conscription and to join the workforce.

“The Torah says you respect Saturday [the Sabbath]as the day of rest, but six days you have to work [or serve] Mr. Peres notes with a smile.

“I tell the religious people: ‘Gentlemen, the Torah tells you to work, not me’.”

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