Israel's Legislature on Wednesday voted to pass a controversial law to end blanket military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews — ending a tradition upheld since the state’s establishment in 1948.
The bill was voted through by 65 to 1 in a poll broadcast on Israel's parliamentary television channel. The lone dissenting vote was cast by an MP from the far-right Jewish Home party who broke coalition discipline to oppose the law. Opposition parties within the 120-seat parliament had earlier announced they would not participate in the vote.
Military service at the age of 18 is required of all Jewish Israelis, with men serving three years and women serving two years. Mandatory service is required of the country’s Druze and Circassian minorities — but Arab citizens of Israel are exempt and largely refuse to join.
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who make up 10 percent of Israel’s population, enrolled in a yeshiva, or religious school, were until now exempt from the draft.
"This is a black day for the state and the government," ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni was quoted as saying on the Kikar Hashabat website. "The state of Israel has lost the right to call itself a Jewish and democratic state."
"The haredi [orthodox] public will not forget or forgive the prime minister and his partners," said Gafni.
Changing the so-called secular-religious status quo in Israel has carried significant political risk in the past for successive coalition governments, which have often relied on the support of haredi partners for their survival.
But Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose centrist party pushed to lift the exemptions, said: "Is it too much to expect people who live here and whose lives are defended every day by soldiers ... to do their bit, no more or no less than any other Israeli citizen?"
Haredim say the study of Holy Scriptures is a foundation of Jewish life, and that scholars have a right to devote themselves full time to the tradition. Army service, they say, would deny them fulfillment of that religious edict.
The new legislation stipulates that ultra-Orthodox men must either join the army or perform civilian service, in a law that will go into force in 2017.
The law also includes a clause stipulating sanctions against draft dodgers — including imprisonment — in a move that has enraged the ultra-Orthodox leadership, who said it would be tantamount to jailing people for practicing their faith.
Last week, a group of 30 experts on the haredi community warned that arrests of yeshiva students could lead to civil rebellion and violent protests, the Jerusalem Post reported.
"The criminal sanctions proposal will not achieve [draft] equality but will instead make it more distant, bring about a halt in the integration of Haredim, lead the state to societal division and could bring endless trouble," the group wrote.
Earlier this month, more than 300,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets of Jerusalem in a mass prayer vigil to protest against the impending legislation. An estimated 60,000 Orthodox Jews protested against the legislation in Manhattan Sunday.
A New York group called the True Torah Jews argue that Israel is discriminating against “real” Jews — going so far as to call the government anti-Semitic. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that there is no place in their religious tradition for a Jewish nation-state, and that the return of Jews to Israel would coincide with the coming of the Messiah.
The True Torah Jews say it is not their responsibility to fix the problems created by the establishment of the state of Israel. They are also opposed to the occupation of Palestine.
The new law is seen by many Israelis as amending the historical injustice of an exemption handed to the ultra-Orthodox in 1948, when Israel was created. At that time they were a small segment of society.
Because of their high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest-growing sector in Israel.
Al Jazeera and wire services