JERUSALEM (AP) — The trigger for Israel’s unprecedented repeat election touches upon one of the major fault lines in Israeli society — the role of the growing ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in modern life.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s prospective government collapsed last week over the issue of military draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men, a source of longtime resentment among the secular majority of Jewish Israelis who are required to serve.
The conflict over the draft law is just one of several deep disagreements over the role of religion in Israeli society. While the ultra-Orthodox parties wield significant political influence, experts say their cloistered communities are being left behind by modern society, with long-lasting negative consequences for the future of the country.
After appearing to win April 9 elections, Netanyahu was blocked from forming a governing coalition by his political ally turned rival Avigdor Lieberman, who insisted on passing legislation that would require young ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the military like everyone else.
Not only did Lieberman’s nationalist, yet secular, Yisrael Beiteinu party deny Netanyahu the chance to form his fifth government, it also all but guaranteed the issue will feature prominently in the upcoming campaign.
“I have nothing against the ultra-Orthodox community, and I think they should integrate,” Lieberman said after the new vote was called. However, he added: “You can’t have a government that is dictated to by one group alone.”
Lieberman has seen his core constituency of aging immigrants from the former Soviet Union shrink and has clearly identified secular rights as a winning campaign strategy. Though he has cut deals with the ultra-Orthodox in the past, he seems poised to run on a ticket that will oppose what he calls the “complete surrender of (Netanyahu’s) Likud to the ultra-Orthodox.”
While the Israeli political spectrum is often defined over where politicians stand on matters of Palestinian statehood, the internal divide is just as profound on matters of religion, and in particular the ultra-Orthodox parties’ status as political kingmakers in Israel’s fragmented parliamentary system.
The ultra-Orthodox have leveraged their clout over the decades to maintain a segregated lifestyle. They run a separate network of schools, raise large families on taxpayer-funded handouts and enforce a public status quo — such as preventing most commerce and public transportation on the Sabbath — that has enraged the secular majority. The ultra-Orthodox also wield a monopoly over matters of marriage, burials and conversions.
But in a country where Jewish males must typically serve three years in the army, the sweeping military draft exemptions have done the most to feed the visceral culture war.
“Giving one’s life for one’s country is the ultimate sacrifice. It is unconscionable that there are free-riders in Israel who have the gall to treat the rest of us as lower caste mercenaries to ensure their livelihood,” said Dan Ben-David, a Tel Aviv University economist and president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, who has researched trends in the community.
He said the draft is “symptomatic” of something much bigger. “They ostensibly prefer not to enter modern society, but have no compunction about claiming its fruits, from modern health care through modern infrastructure to the extensive subsidization of their lifestyle,” he said.
The draft exemptions go back to Israel’s establishment in 1948, when the government allowed several hundred gifted students to pursue religious studies.
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