Israel ends ultra-Orthodox military service exemptions

Ultra-Orthodox protest in Jerusalem (2 March 2014) Ultra-Orthodox Jews studying in seminaries have been exempt from national service since Israel's foundation

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Israel's parliament has approved legislation that will end exemptions from military service for ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students.

The bill was passed by 65 votes to one, and an amendment allowing civilian national service by 67 to one.

Opposition parties, including Labour, boycotted the votes because of what they called unfair and undemocratic dealing within the governing coalition.

Secular Israelis had complained that the exemptions were unfair.

"The change begins tomorrow morning and it is expected to transform the face of Israeli society unrecognisably," said Yaakov Peri of Yesh Atid, a party in the governing coalition that led the push for the new legislation.

Criminal sanctions

Exemptions from military conscription were given to the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, when Israel was created in 1948. At that time there were only 400 seminary students.

Now, owing to their high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox account for about 10% of the country's population of about 8 million.

Most ultra-Orthodox men are unemployed because of their religious studies and rely on donations, state benefits and their wives' wages.

This has long caused resentment among Israel's secular majority, leading to a demand for the ultra-Orthodox to share the so-called social burden.

The ultra-Orthodox say that military service would stop them devoting themselves to the study of religious scriptures, which is seen as a foundation of Jewish life.

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox took to the streets of Jerusalem earlier this month to protest against the new measures

"We understand there is a need to participate in things, but there is also a great duty of the people of Israel to study Torah," said Yitzhak Vaknin, an MP from the opposition ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

The new legislation sets annual quotas for the drafting of yeshiva students for military or civilian national service. The goal is to enlist 5,200 per year - about 60% of those of draft age - by mid-2017.

If the quota is not met by then, the government will introduce mandatory military service for all but 1,800 "gifted scholars" each year and impose criminal sanctions on draft-dodgers, including imprisonment - something that has enraged ultra-Orthodox leaders.

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox took to the streets of Jerusalem earlier this month to protest against the new measures and have promised further mass demonstrations if they are enacted.

Secular critics of the legislation have meanwhile said it does not come close to equalising the social burden and plan to petition the Supreme Court to nullify it. The court ruled in 2012 that the exemptions for seminary students were unconstitutional.

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