JERUSALEM – Deep in the heart of Mea Shearim, a Jerusalem bastion of hardline ultra-Orthodox Jews, hundreds of bearded young men in black suits have their noses burrowed into books, immersed in biblical study and oblivious to their surroundings.
They are the creme de la creme of a cloistered community, the Harvard of the ultra-Orthodox world, who are expected neither to work for a living nor serve in the military with other Israelis. But it's not just the students at the prestigious Mir Yeshiva for whom prayer and study of scripture is a full-time job. Nearly the entire community has been granted sweeping exemptions that have infuriated the general public.
These young men, and their sheltered lifestyle, are at the heart of a battle that is tearing Israel apart in a clash between tradition and modernity, religion and democracy. The fight centers on whether ultra-Orthodox males should be drafted into the military along with other Jews, but it really is about a much deeper issue: the place of Judaism in the Jewish state.
The question has come to the fore as the government races to meet a Supreme Court-ordered deadline to revamp the nation's draft law. In its current form, secular males must perform three years of compulsory service when they turn 18. Ultra-Orthodox men, like the young scholars at the Mir Yeshiva, have special exemptions that allow them to continue studying in their isolated enclaves while collecting government subsidies.
For their supporters, seminary students are preserving a tradition that has served as the very bedrock of Judaism for thousands of years.
"Jews need to study the Bible. That is what makes us unique as a people," Yerach Tucker, a 30-year-old spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox community, said proudly as he guided a visitor through the Mir Yeshiva. "It is the essence of our lives."
But polls show the vast majority of Israelis, who risk their lives and put their careers on hold while serving in the military, object strongly to the arrangement, and many see it as the essence of everything that is wrong with their country.
This resentment has fueled a broader high-decibel culture war. In recent months, secular activists have rebelled against what they consider growing religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox, such as attempts to enforce gender segregation on buses and public places, and a religious backlash by ultra-Orthodox who feel unfairly persecuted.
"It is something so ethical, so basic, that we have all grown up upon: service, giving to the state. Everyone here has to give something to society because we are one society," said Boaz Nol, a reserve officer who was among those planning a massive protest in Tel Aviv against the continued exemptions.
More than 10,000 reservists and their supporters turned out for the rally Saturday night, many of them carrying placards reading "everybody serves."
The Supreme Court earlier this year ruled the draft exemptions illegal and gave the government until Aug. 1 to figure out a new, fairer system. That is proving far more difficult than expected.
Last week, the deep divisions between religious and secular parties inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government led to the collapse of a special committee formed to draft new legislation.
Netanyahu's largest governing partner, the centrist Kadima Party, is now threatening to quit the government, just two months after joining the coalition with the goal of reforming the draft. Netanyahu has vowed to find a compromise.
Dan Halutz, a former Israeli military chief turned Kadima politician, visited the reservists' protest tent in Tel Aviv Saturday and announced that he was leaving the party.
A glimpse into the world of the ultra-Orthodox shows just how intractable the issue has become. The draft exemptions date back to the time of Israel's independence in 1948, when founding father David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered.
As ultra-Orthodox parties became power brokers, the numbers mounted. Ultra-Orthodox officials now estimate there are about 100,000 full-time Torah learners of draft age.
The pattern has lasting ramifications. The heavy emphasis on religious study, begun early on in a separate system of elementary schools, has pushed many ultra-Orthodox men to shun the work world, relying on welfare as they spend their days immersed in holy texts. The ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens.
Steep unemployment, believed to hover around 50 percent, coupled with a high birthrate has fueled deep poverty in the ultra-Orthodox sector. With families of eight to 10 children commonplace, more than a quarter of all Israeli first graders today are ultra-Orthodox. Experts say if these trends continue, Israel's long-term economic prospects are in danger.
But changing the ways of the ultra-Orthodox will not be easy. Leaders speak proudly of centuries-old traditions of prayer and learning that they believe has allowed the Jewish people to survive such tragedies as the Spanish Inquisition, European pogroms and the Holocaust. Study in Yeshiva seminaries, they say, is no less important than military strength in protecting the country from modern threats in a hostile region.
"You have to understand, we are part of the Jewish army," said Aharon Grossman, a 30-year-old student at Mir Yeshiva. "Some people serve in tanks. We serve in yeshiva."
Ultra-Orthodox leaders insist they will never be forced to serve in the military.
For decades, a string of secular-led Israeli governments have maintained the status quo, either because of their dependence on ultra-Orthodox political kingmakers or out of fear of an angry backlash from a sector that hasn't hesitated to block roads, clash with police or mobilize tens of thousands of activists into the streets when ordered by their rabbis.
With the clock ticking, Netanyahu now faces a near-impossible task as he tries to satisfy the demands of the secular masses, the Supreme Court and various coalition partners all while preventing sectarian unrest.
Before the parliamentary committee collapse, ultra-Orthodox parties boycotted the panel. And in a sign of what may lie ahead, thousands of black-clad ultra-Orthodox took to the streets of Jerusalem last week to protest the committee's work. Some wore sacks in a sign of mourning over the prospect of being forced into service.
Einat Wilf, a lawmaker with the secular Independence party, said the ultra-Orthodox have no right to complain, adding that Israelis are fed up with a system in which they take and give nothing back in return.
"I, for one, do not believe that their prayers are protecting soldiers and they can't force their ways upon me," she said. "If they want to pray, fine, but not at my expense."
She said that despite ultra-Orthodox intransigence, the doomed committee she was a member of had sought a compromise — even if it was not to the liking of secularists like her.
"Will it be better than the current situation? Yes," she said. "Will it be fair and just? Absolutely not."
A day after Netanyahu disbanded the committee, its chairman nonetheless released his recommendations. Among the proposals: that no more than 20 percent of ultra-Orthodox males, roughly 1,500 people a year, be granted exemptions, while others be permitted to defer service for no more than five years. A national service option was also introduced for those who didn't fit into the military.
The details of the debate have dominated political discussion in Israel, handing Netanyahu his biggest challenge yet since he formed a 94-member coalition in early May. His office says he will meet quietly with political leaders in the coming days in order to formulate a fair draft law.
The ultra-Orthodox reject the idea that they are leeching off the state. They say employment numbers are skewed, and that they contribute to public coffers through sales tax on purchases they make for large families. They also note that the government subsidizes areas that they have no interest in, such as culture, sports and the arts.
Unlike other Israelis, who mark graduations, military promotions, and professional accomplishments, the ultra-Orthodox only celebrate study. Later this month, for instance, thousands of believers are scheduled to pack a basketball arena to mark the completion of a full study of the Talmud — a seven-year odyssey in which 2,700 pages of rabbinical debates over Jewish law are meticulously dissected at a pace of one page a day.
Many ultra-Orthodox sects aren't even Zionist and refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah. Some tiny extreme sects even side with the Palestinians and Israel's archenemy Iran.
Most object to change on much simpler grounds. In Hebrew, the ultra-Orthodox are known as "Haredim," or "those who fear" God. But it's not death they fear in the military — it's immersion in what they see as a secular and hedonistic society.
"The main reason that we can't serve is that the military simply doesn't suit us. The military is a secular melting pot," said Chaim Walder, a well-known ultra-Orthodox author and activist.
It's not clear how much the military even wants Haredi conscripts. While it formally calls for everyone to serve, military officials acknowledge it will be extremely difficult to incorporate them into the army.
Many Haredi men lack basic skills, like rudimentary math, because their independent school systems barely teach them. Their aversion to direct contact with women would require segregation and could undercut the military's record of giving female soldiers equal opportunities.
Insubordination could also grow if ultra-Orthodox men found themselves forced to choose between religious beliefs and commanders' orders. No one can predict what could happen if armed soldiers took their orders from rabbis.
The costs would also be high: Drafting this community would require special arrangements, such as kitchens conforming to the strictest interpretation of Jewish dietary law and a large chunk of the day set aside for bible study. And as those who are married and with children are entitled to higher salaries — the military would face another financial burden.
Inclusion has been successful in some areas however. The army has designed a number of roles specifically for the needs of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, including a segregated infantry unit as well as computer, technology and intelligence units.
A military official involved in the effort said 85 percent of discharged ultra-Orthodox soldiers went on to find jobs in civilian life.
But altogether, the numbers remain small. Fewer than 1,300 conscripts participated in these programs over the past year, military figures show.
Some leading rabbis have ruled that those not cut out for intensive seminary life or those who were already married — and perhaps less susceptible to the lure of the secular world — could be eligible to serve or take part in a range of civil service options being considered.
Still, any arrangement would likely involve inducting thousands of unwilling men over the objection of their rabbis.
Walder, the activist, insists Jewish study is sacrosanct and non-negotiable, saying that state must continue to fund it.
"The only thing that is truly keeping us safe here is bible study," he said. "We are protecting the country with our prayer. We are making sure that there is something here to protect."
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