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JERUSALEM, Aug 14 2012 (IPS) - Thousands of ultra-Orthodox men, women and children have been demonstrating in Jerusalem against the Israeli government’s move to make military service mandatory for members of their community.
Opposition to instating compulsory draft is widespread across the ultra-Orthodox community.
“They fear that exposing young men who have been cloistered behind the ‘walls of holiness’ to military service, with its high levels of adrenaline, will change their identity,” Yedidia Stern, vice-president of the Israel Democracy Institute and professor of law at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv wrote in an opinion piece in Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot.
In February, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that a law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service was unconstitutional. The Tal Law was originally passed in 2002 and expired Aug. 1.
Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak said at the time of the Supreme Court ruling that “the Tal Law, after ten years, did not meet expectations, nor did it lead to the required changes… concerning equally sharing the burden.”
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community makes up approximately ten percent of the Israeli population. Ultra-Orthodox men do not work, and instead spend most of their time studying Torah, the Jewish law. The Israeli government provides financial and social services to the community, which has a poverty rate of 60 percent.
This support has caused tensions between secular and religious Jews; in early July thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv demanding that all segments of the Israeli population “shoulder the burden” of military service.
This tense situation, according to Yedidia Stern, has the potential of tearing Israeli society apart and further alienating the ultra-Orthodox community. “(Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu is likely to bring upon himself the wrath of the streets, as last year’s summer protests reawaken. The coming summer has the potential of being particularly volatile for Israeli society.”
Netanyahu recently formed the “Pleisner Committee” to draft new legislation on compulsory military national service for ultra-Orthodox men. The Israeli government also signaled its intention to mandate national service for the approximately 1.6 million Palestinian citizens of the state.
“I’m determined to bring about a dramatic increase in the proportion who share the burden (of service) among Haredim and Arabs alike. We will no longer permit the situation of those who don’t serve to be equal to that of those who do,” Netanyahu reportedly said. The Haredim are the most conservative among Orthodox Jews.
Supervised by the National Service Administration, a body that operates under the control of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, national service is a voluntary programme that young men and women exempt from Israel’s compulsory army service can participate in.
To date, the programme has been voluntary in nature; according to the National Civil Service Directorate, more than 1,550 Palestinians participated in 2011, up from only 240 in 2006. Most volunteers assist staff in schools, hospitals and other public institutions throughout the country, but some can also serve in security institutions such as the Israeli police forces.
On Jul. 18, at least 400 Arab youth – Palestinian, Bedouin and Druze citizens of Israel – gathered in Nazareth to voice their opposition to being forced into the programme.
“This is a serious threat to our future, to our community, to our youngsters,” said Nadim Nashif, director of Baladna, a Palestinian youth organisation based in Haifa, which jointly organised the event. “It’s not voluntarism because it has a political context.”
Nashif told IPS that people are opposed to the national service programme because it threatens Palestinian identity, is linked to the Israeli military establishment, and conditions Palestinian citizens’ rights on the basis of duty to the state.
“One of the scenarios that we are worried about is that some (Palestinian youth) will be serving and will get some kind of rights, and others who would be refusing, their rights will be decreasing. It’s making kind of a class system inside our community,” Nashif said.
Palestinian citizens of Israel constitute one of the most disadvantaged segments of Israeli society: over half of all Palestinian families in Israel are classified as poor, compared to a national average of 20 percent, according to the 2011 Inequality Report released by Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.
Unemployment rates are also disproportionately high in the Palestinian community – only 20 percent of Palestinian women are members of the workforce – and Palestinian towns and cities annually rank the lowest socioeconomic level in Israel, the Adalah study found.
According to Nashif, the case of Druze citizens of Israel – who have been subjected to a mandatory draft since 1956 – is a prime example of how serving the Israeli establishment doesn’t guarantee equal rights.
“Since 1956, the vast majority of young (Druze) males are serving in the army. They’re not getting equal rights. In many situations and aspects, their situation is worse than the rest of the Arabs. This is a very solid proof that having rights is not about if you’re serving or not, it’s about if you’re Jewish or not,” he said.
“Our rights are natural. Our rights should not be conditioned by this politician or that politician, or any kind of law.”
To date, a failure to agree on the terms of a universal draft has had major consequences for Israeli politics; Shaul Mofaz, head of Israel’s centre-right Kadima party, pulled out of Netanyahu’s coalition government over the issue.
Israeli Vice-Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon has formulated a new draft of the legislation. According to Israeli media reports, the plan would see the age of exemption for ultra-Orthodox men lowered gradually, with the intent of having 6,000 enlist in the army by 2016. The target set for Palestinians joining the national service is 5,000 by that same year.
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