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Israeli Religious Students Can Opt Out of Army Duty

Military: Legislation highlights the divide between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews.


JERUSALEM — Over the bitter objections of those who call it discriminatory, the Israeli parliament Tuesday legalized the tradition of exempting thousands of religious men from having to serve in the military.

Under the law, which squeaked through a divided Knesset, Israel's ultra-Orthodox men are allowed to skip the compulsory military service that marks a rite of passage for the vast majority of this country's youth.

Instead, Israel's haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, are entitled to take a year off, at the age of 22, from their yeshiva studies to work and decide whether they want to return to a life of religious contemplation or serve an abbreviated or modified form of military service. Either way, they would be spared the full three-year tour of duty required of most young men and women after they turn 18. (Religious women are exempt.)

The Knesset vote capped two years of rancorous debate that further divided the religious and the secular in Israel, a split one legislator described as "two worlds, two poles: heaven and earth."

The haredim argue that their faithful study of the Torah is crucial for Jews to flourish and to ensure God's continued protection. They also fear that mixing with nonobservant Jews, especially women, would expose them to the seductions of the world.

Many secular Jews, however, complain that the ultra-Orthodox enjoy the protection of the Israeli military without contributing anything to it. Opponents of the so-called Tal bill took out full-page ads in Israel's main daily newspapers denouncing it as a state-sanctioned way for Israelis to dodge the draft.

"The Tal bill discriminates between blood. The Tal bill violates the principle of equality, which is the foundation of democracy," the ad said. "The people of Israel will remember on Election Day who sold them out to the haredim," the advertisement warned.

Parliament members from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party voted en bloc for the bill. Despite differences of opinion within the party, Likud leaders demanded strict compliance on the vote.

Two years ago, Sharon himself spoke passionately against the proposal when it was introduced by his rival, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak. But as with Barak then, Sharon needs the support of Israel's right-wing legislators to stay comfortably in power. On Tuesday, he voted in favor of the bill with "a heavy heart," acknowledging that the legislation fell short of offering "true equality."

Such equality has not prevailed in military service since Israel was founded in 1948. Then, David Ben-Gurion allowed about 400 yeshiva students to defer joining the army. The exception became the status quo, with those now excused from military service numbering about 30,000.

But in 1999, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that the haredim could no longer enjoy automatic exemption from military service, forcing the Knesset to confront the issue.

The ensuing debate cut to the heart of the paradox many Israelis are constantly trying to reconcile: how Israel can be a Jewish and a democratic state at the same time.

For the ultra-Orthodox, there is no question which comes first.

"The state is not doing yeshiva students a favor by letting them study" instead of serving in the military, said Knesset member Shmuel Halpert, an ultra-Orthodox Jew. "They are studying not for themselves, but for the whole people of Israel, and Israel needs them more than they need Israel."

Supporters of the blanket exemption caused an uproar this week when posters went up comparing the army to a brothel.

But the outrage was not enough to sink the bill in spite of impassioned calls from opponents.

"There is no one whose blood is redder than that of another or who is entitled to benefits for reasons of his religion, race, sex or color," said Yossi Paritzky, whose Shinui party has made opposition to the blanket exemption a major plank in its platform. "This law ... will legally discriminate between people based on religion--based on a way of life and nothing else."

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