In Brief

Israeli ultra-orthodox protest against army draft

Israeli government plans to enlist 5,200 ultra-orthodox Jews – previously exempt from the draft – by mid-2017

HUNDREDS of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews blocked streets in Jerusalem on Sunday in protest against plans to conscript members of their community for Israeli military service.

The proposed bill will lift a longstanding exemption that has been in place since Israel's foundation, protecting seminary students from the national draft.

The law was originally put in place in 1948 to foster religious scholars to "replace those who perished in Europe during the Nazi Holocaust", The Independent reports. The original exemption covered several hundred people, but over the years the numbers have swelled. Ultra-orthodox Jews – or Haredim – now account for 10 per cent of Israel's eight million people.

The question of whether or not Haredim should be excluded from the draft has become an "emotional national debate", The Guardian says.

Ultra-orthodox Jews are reportedly a fast-growing and relatively poor social group within Israel. A large percentage of Haredi men are officially unemployed, dedicating their lives to the study of scripture and living off government benefits.

"The ultra-orthodox community is resented by many Israelis who accuse the Haredim of burdening the economy and spongeing off the state while avoiding the duties that bind others," The Guardian says.

Sunday's protest was one of the largest demonstrations in Israel's history. Seas of ultra-Orthodox men and women gathered in Jerusalem's main thoroughfares to pray for change. Some wore signs carrying slogans including "war on religion" and "we will not join the military," The Telegraph reports. If the bill passes, those who resist conscription could potentially face jail.

Almost all Israeli men and women over the age of 18 are obliged to do military service. The move to abolish the exemption comes at a time when government does not include any ultra-orthodox parties.

Yair Lapid, Israel's Finance Minister and leader of the secularist Yesh Atid party, pursued the bill to fulfil his promise to secular voters.

The new law has been hailed by supporters as an historic step, but some say that its implementation will take too long. In the four-years it will take the bill to come into force, critics worry that it could be overturned. If that doesn't happen, the government says its goal is to enlist 5,200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers by mid-2017.

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