By Kate Shutttleworth
March 12, 2014
Israel is tackling one of its most polarizing issues, the exemption of its most religious Jews from military service. A new law forcing the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews has led to widespread tensions.
For a month the ultra-Orthodox community, know as Haredi, have merged in Jerusalem from across Israel, to protest the bill.
The largest protest recently drew up to 400,000 ultra-Orthodox men, women and children. Secular Israelis have long looked down on Haredim as sponging off the state. The majority of men rely on welfare payments and don't work, while their wives do, but often earn low incomes.
Resentment has been rising as most Israeli Jewish men and women are called to military service when they turn 18 - while until now ultra-Orthodox have been exempt.
The bill has been created under the slogan "equal sharing of the burden." Haredi conscription would be phased in by 2017, with the goal of enlisting 5,200 conscripts. Under the new law, evading the draft would be a criminal offense with imprisonment as a punishment.
The Israeli government wants to offer financial incentives to religious seminaries that send their students to army. Israel's finance minister Yair Lapid has led the charge in praising the bill. At a press conference in Tel Aviv he said "an historical, legal mistake had gone on for 65 years," and added that the bill amounted to a "social revolution."
Haredi standard of living
The Haredi community makes up 10 percent of Israel's population of 8 million people - the second-fastest growing population in Israel. According to the OECD, 50 percent of Haredi live in poverty.
Former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and council member for United Torah Judaism, Yitzhak Pindrus, said he opposed the bill despite having served in the army as a youth.
He said religious seminaries (yeshiva ) were an integral part of the Jewish state and he believed the new draft law would cut the number of Haredi able to commit to religious study.
"The law is a statement - it has a goal, in my opinion and the Haredi community's opinion, that illegitimizes the Haredi community. That's the purpose of the law and that's what it's here for, it's not really to change anything, or to have more people serving in the Israel army. The issue is the relationship between the Haredi community and the rest of the community in Israel," Pindrus told DW.
Pindrus said he didn't believe the Haredi were freeloading off the Israeli government. He said Haredi men and women were paid 430 shekels, the equivalent of 90 euros per adult a month. In addition the Haredi families received 58 euros per child. "Nobody can change their lifestyle on 430 shekels a month," he said. "They are further trying to delegitimize Haredi by taking that 430 shekels out."
Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug recently warned that Israel's economic growth would stagnate and even reverse if the issue of high unemployment among Haredi men was not addressed. She called for a proactive government policy to address the issue including an increase in investments in education and professional training.
Another way forward - education
Ultra-Orthodox couple Yaakov and Rivka Yeruslavsky set up Jerusalem-based Lomda vocational Institute 20 years ago. Rivka started by offering computer studies lessons in her living room, but evolved to setting up a full academic college offering degree programs in partnership with Hadassah Academic College.
"I am the first in a family of 12 children, my father was a plumber who worked very hard to keep my family, and my mother worked in odd jobs like assistant teaching and event organization. My mother was a very gifted person who was stumped in her ability to do more rewarding jobs because she left the necessary education. I have always known that I have needed to study a vocation in order to raise a family in acceptable conditions. Like all the other ultra-Orthodox girls I continued from college to teachers training."
However, that path proved difficult so Rivka decided to change tack.
"Finding a job as a teacher was almost an impossible mission given the huge number of teachers that came out of the teacher training colleges every year, so I decided to study computer programming," she told DW. She said she was part of the first group of ultra-Orthodox women to undergo computer science training.
She hopes that her career can set an example for others. "Nobody really understood our needs as ultra-Orthodox women. The decision to lead the change took roots in me at that time."