JERUSALEM — After years of heated public debate and political wrangling, Israel’s Parliament on Wednesday approved landmark legislation that will eventually eliminate exemptions from compulsory military service for many ultra-Orthodox students enrolled in seminaries.
The issue has become a social and political lightning rod in a country where most Jewish 18-year-olds are subjected to compulsory military service for up to three years. Many Israelis, who see conscription as part of a deeper culture war between the secular and modern Orthodox Jews and the ultra-Orthodox, have been demanding a more equitable sharing of the responsibilities of citizenship and voted in last year’s elections on that basis.
Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid, one of the parties that promoted the new legislation in the governing coalition, wrote on his Facebook page soon after the vote, “To the 543,458 citizens of Israel who elected Yesh Atid: Today you have passed the equal sharing of the burden.”
But the law, approved by 65-to-1, is unlikely to allay the acrimony over ultra-Orthodox recruitment and might even exacerbate tensions. The opposition in the 120-seat Parliament, the Knesset, boycotted the vote in an uproar over what it has called unfair political dealing within the coalition as it moved to pass military service legislation and two other contentious bills this week.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders have reacted with fury and are threatening to roll back the slow, voluntary trend that was already underway in their community toward military and national service. And nongovernmental monitoring groups immediately petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court, seeking to overturn the new law on grounds that it does not go far enough in enforcing the principle of equality.
For one thing, the law includes an adjustment period of three years in which increased service will be encouraged but not mandatory. It also gives the ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, or those who fear God, a choice between military service and civilian national service, unlike ordinary recruits, and it allows students at seminaries, or yeshivas, to defer service for several years beyond the age of 18.
“The whole idea that the law promotes equality is not really convincing,” said Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research organization here, and former dean of the law faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
By the end of the three-year period, Professor Kremnitzer said, there will be new elections and a new government, possibly including Haredi parties, “and the whole law would become thin air.” Given the delay, he said, “It is questionable whether the Knesset accomplished anything.”
Although the law stops far short of enforcing conscription for all Haredi young men, ultra-Orthodox leaders are outraged over its more symbolic aspects. They argue that Torah study should be a priority in Israel, a country that defines itself as the Jewish state, and that the yeshiva students perform a spiritual duty that is crucial for protecting the country. On March 2 hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox paralyzed much of Jerusalemwith a mass prayer gathering to protest the legislation. Tens of thousands of Haredim held a similar gathering in Lower Manhattan on Sunday.
Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, said, “Today Israel lost the right to be called a Jewish state,” according to the Ynet Hebrew news site. He said the Haredim “will not forget or forgive” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates for what he called the affront to the Haredi public and to Torah study.
Until a year ago Mr. Netanyahu and the Haredi parties were political allies. Those parties are not in the current coalition after years of having wielded disproportionate political power as coalition linchpins.
In the streets and at the ballot box, mainstream Israelis have displayed growing resentment over benefits granted for decades to members of the ultra-Orthodox community who chose full-time Torah study. Many Israelis view the enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox minority and its integration into the work force as crucial for the country’s economy and viability. The ultra-Orthodox sector now makes up about 10 percent of the population of 8 million, but favoring large families, it is expanding rapidly.
The law sets modest annual quotas for the drafting of yeshiva students for military or national service and holds open the threat of criminal penalties against those who evade the draft if the quotas are not met voluntarily by mid-2017 — an unlikely possibility that has nonetheless enraged ultra-Orthodox opponents.
The roots of the tensions date to the founding of the state of Israel in 1948. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister, granted full-time yeshiva students state financing and exemption from army service to refill the ranks of Torah scholarship decimated in the Holocaust. At the time 400 students were of draftable age. Today there are tens of thousands.
In 2012, Israel’s Supreme Court invalidated a law that formalized exemptions for yeshiva students, ruling that it contradicted the principle of equality. The new legislation will face a similar test, though the court deliberations could proceed for at least a year.
Israel’s parliamentary opposition, led by Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party, was not uniformly against the new law. But the opposition took the unusual measure of boycotting the discussions in the full assembly and the votes on this and two other bills. Opposition members argued that democratic debate had been stifled because the coalition parties made a pact that all their members would vote for all three pieces of legislation. On their own, none of the bills would have garnered a majority.
One of the bills, which passed into law on Tuesday, raises the electoral threshold for political parties from two percent to 3.25 percent — a move that could harm the electoral chances of small parties, including those that represent the politically fragmented Arab minority. Another bill, which passed later Thursday, calls for a national referendum on any withdrawal from sovereign Israeli territory as part of a future peace treaty with Israel’s Arab neighbors.