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Israeli Election Rekindles Debate Over Military Service

The rise of a new Israeli political party after last week's elections has set the stage for renewed conflict over the country's military draft.

That new party, Yesh Atid, or "There is a Future," campaigned on a promise to draft thousands of ultra-Orthodox students who are currently exempt from military service.

And with the number of ultra-Orthodox students in Israel on the rise given the community's high birth rates, this longstanding debate has become a critical post-election issue.

Outside Israel, many people think all Israelis, men and women, serve in the military. But the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 10 percent of Israel's population, are not conscripted, and neither are the Arab citizens of Israel, who account for around 20 percent of the population. In both communities, a minority volunteer to serve.

It's a standard scene in Israel on Sunday, the first day of the work week: Young men and women in uniform stand at bus stops, waiting for buses that will take them back to military bases after weekend visits home. But you'll see few ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim.

Elia, a young paratrooper, says that's not right. "Everybody has to serve in the army," he says. "I mean, this is Israel. We live in a very difficult situation, and everybody should give his part and go to the army."

A Long-Standing Issue

Polls show that most Israelis agree. But the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox has been stuck in the courts — and in the legislature — for years. A growing number of Haredim now join up voluntarily or do national service in lieu of enlisting.

Elishama Cohen, another soldier from a religious family, says he is in a special unit for Haredi soldiers. Many of them are there, he says, despite the objections of their families.

"I have [a] friend who the army had to rent an apartment for, in Jerusalem, because his family wouldn't accept it at all," Cohen says. "I had a friend who has to take his uniform off on the bus before he goes home."

Voluntary enlistment won't be enough if Israel's new government follows the platform of Yesh Atid, the new party that captured 19 seats with a campaign focused on this issue. The party won the second most seats in the election, trailing only the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Yesh Atid party says this is a campaign promise it can't compromise on, but many ultra-Orthodox thinkers characterize Yesh Atid's policy another way.

"It's a form of ideological coercion, which should not be tolerated in a democratic world," says Rabbi Shmuel Jacobowitz, dean of the Harav Lord Jacobowitz Torah Institute of Contemporary Issues — a kind of Haredi think tank.

Turning people away who want to study Torah is unthinkable to the ultra-Orthodox, Jacobowitz says. Nurturing a devoted cadre of Torah scholars is in the "anchor of the Jewish people," he says, "and we as a community feel that the survival of the Jewish people depends on this no less — and in many senses more — than on the physical protection of the state of Israel."

For Netanyahu, A Difficult Balancing Act

Many of the customers in Jerusalem's Rav Shefa Mall are Haredim. The men wear long dark coats and broad-brimmed hats and sport payot, locks of hair grown from the corners of the forehead. Few want to talk with outsiders, but one shopper, Andre Atwood, says he'd like to see more Haredi young people in the army. But it can't be forced, he says — it has to be voluntary.

Military service isn't something the Haredi community is used to, Atwood says. Those who want to study and learn the Torah should, but those who don't should be able to study one hour each day while also contributing to society through service, he adds.

Yesh Atid envisions a phase-in period of perhaps five years, but eventually, many of the ultra-Orthodox would face possible conscription. And figuring out who has to serve could be painful. Uri Regev, head of the group Hiddush for Religious Freedom and Equality, says there's only one way to avoid favoritism: A small cadre of Torah students should be chosen based strictly on academic ability.

"The selection should be done by an objective board, and not by the yeshiva heads or the ultra-Orthodox leadership," Regev says.

Untangling this knot will be central to ongoing discussions about forming a new Israeli government. Two religious parties that have been part of Netanyahu's ruling coalition hold nearly as many seats as Yesh Atid, the party backing universal service.

Netanyahu is now trying to keep both sides inside the next government, to help his own party recover from serious electoral losses.

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