JERUSALEM — In an step that could intensify a major rift among Israelis, the defense minister on Tuesday ordered the army to prepare for a universal draft of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
Many in the insular and rapidly growing community say they would rather go to jail than comply with an end to the decades-long draft exemptions that have caused increasing outrage in the country.
Ehud Barak gave defense officials a month to craft a plan to put the new draft procedure into practice, trying to buy time in a last-ditch effort to find an agreed solution. His order came just hours before the expiration of a law that has granted tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews exemptions from military duty and followed a Supreme Court ruling against extending that arrangement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel's Channel 2 TV Tuesday night that the army would begin widening its list of recruits immediately.
"Starting tomorrow, there's a new law about equal service. The Israeli military will decide whom to draft, how many to draft – and it will draft," Netanyahu pledged.
Ultra-Orthodox leader Meir Porush, a former lawmaker, said drafting his people would unleash a "civil war." He said the military neither needed nor wanted to be flooded with devoutly religious conscripts.
"The Israeli military is not ready, won't be ready and doesn't want to be ready" to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews, Porush said. Privately, some defense officials agreed.
What began 60 years ago as exemptions for a few hundred top rabbinical students to symbolically rebuild the great Jewish houses of learning obliterated in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II has mushroomed – partly due to a very high birthrate – into get-out-of-the-army cards for 60,000 able-bodied Israeli adult men. Most other Jews are drafted into the military at age 18, with men serving three years and then decades of yearly reserve duty, and women serving about two years.
The disparity has long grated on the nerves of Israel's secular and modern Orthodox Jewish majority, who have to delay university studies and careers during their service. Meanwhile ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 percent of Israel's population, continue their nonstop study of religious tomes, usually to the exclusion of modern subjects like science and foreign languages.
Secular Israelis tend to reject the argument by the ultra-Orthodox that their devotion to Judaism amounts to another type of defense of the country.
The hot dispute over deeply held values reflects the central role of the army in Israeli cultural life. Over the years, the army has been the great melting pot for a country made up largely of immigrants from more than 100 countries, socializing people into the fabric of society, providing language instruction and even remedial high school classes for underprivileged youth, taking on a role far beyond that of military forces in other nations.
The extension of that is the widespread feeling that everyone must serve in the army as matter of societal fairness. Resentment against the ultra-Orthodox for their exemptions has been growing along with their proportion of the population and political clout, as their parties often hold the balance of power in Israel's fractious, multi-party political system, winning outsized budgets for their institutions and subsidies for their people, many of whom do not work.
Since the Supreme Court ruled that the blanket exemptions cannot be continued, there have been repeated demonstrations by Israelis who have served in the army, demanding that ultra-Orthodox Jews be drafted. One activist spent Tuesday in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, handing out fake draft notices.
Privately, military officials say they don't need tens of thousands of ill-trained and unskilled ultra-Orthodox Jews in their ranks. While actual numbers are classified, experts say the size of the Israeli army has been cut in recent years as manpower needs recede. One piece of evidence is the steadily dropping maximum age for compulsory reserve duty for men – 55 in the 1980s, as low as 40 for combat soldiers today. Israel's modern army is turning to high-tech weapons systems that require fewer boots on the ground, even as the nation's population – and its draft pool of 18-year-olds – grows.
Barak's Tuesday decree filled a legal vacuum on the status of the draft. The existing law exempting tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men from serving was due to expire at midnight. Israel's Supreme Court overturned that legislation in February, but it remained in effect as the government struggled to come up with a new formula.
But Netanyahu has been unable to bridge the differences between his secular and ultra-religious coalition partners. Heated negotiations fizzled – even though Netanyahu himself seemed inclined toward some sort of compromise, such as delaying the draft age for the ultra-Orthodox or drafting only some of them. Earlier this month, the issue cost him his largest coalition partner, the centrist Kadima party, which insisted on universal draft.
In the meantime, parliament has gone into recess until mid-October, putting efforts to formulate a new conscription law on hold.
Shmuel Poppenheim, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish activist, said draft-age men would go to jail en masse to avoid serving in the military.
"If they come in trucks to arrest an entire seminary, no problem," Poppenheim said. "If there is no flexibility on (Barak's) side, religious elders will sit together and declare war."
The ultra-Orthodox defend their position by pointing to their need for an environment that enables a strictly religious lifestyle
Yerach Toker, an aide to ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni, expressed confidence that Barak would take the ultra-Orthodox community's needs into consideration, saying he had been sensitive to its concerns in the past.
"We hope he will act wisely," Toker said.
Associated Press writer Mark Lavie contributed from Cairo.