In some respects, Wednesday was a historic turning point for Israel — the day on which ultra-Orthodox Israelis became officially subject to the draft along with the rest of the country’s Jewish citizens.
On the ground, however, things looked less than historic. At the army’s induction center in Jerusalem, in a sleepy religious neighborhood near the central bus station, there was the usual trickle of teenagers in shorts, T-shirts and tank tops eventually headed for the various units of the Israel Defense Forces, accompanied by the usual trickle of teenagers in black coats and hats coming to register for draft exemptions.
The Tal Law, the legislation allowing ultra-Orthodox Israelis to opt out of army service that was struck down by the Supreme Court in February, expired Tuesday at midnight. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, buckling to ultra-Orthodox pressure, backed away from legislating a new law that would have set guidelines for drafting the ultra-Orthodox.
That meant that as of Wednesday, at least in theory, all ultra-Orthodox men of draft age must join the army. The ultra-Orthodox make up an estimated 10 percent of Israel’s nearly 8 million people.
In practice, however, the army has been given a 30-day period in which it is supposed to prepare for the new reality. No one seems to know what exactly will happen after that, though few believe a large-scale draft of ultra-Orthodox men is imminent.
The only thing that seemed out of the ordinary Wednesday was the appearance of several reporters outside the gate of the induction center, to the alternating amusement and annoyance of the rear-echelon soldiers guarding the entrance. Armed with cameras and recording devices, the reporters were there to cover ultra-Orthodox teenagers continuing not to join the army.
“We’ve been in full service for 64 years,” said Yehuda Ben-David, a middle-aged Jerusalem resident in a black hat with the brim angled down in front. He was referring to the 64 years of Israel’s existence. “We sit and learn all day, every day.”
Ben-David had just arrived with his son, who was going to be registered as a yeshiva student and exempted from service. Yeshiva students guard the army and the rest of the country by studying Torah, Ben-David explained.
Next to him was Motti Chen of Moshav Gizo, in sandals and jeans, who had just brought his own son for pre-draft medical checkups. He has an older son already serving.
Ben-David said he felt sorry for Chen’s army-bound son. “If he walked in the way of the Torah, he would go to yeshiva to protect the soldiers,” Ben-David said.
Chen mentioned Tisha B’av, the Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem that was marked on Sunday. When faced with Roman legions, he pointed out, the Jews did not sit and study texts: “Who fought Titus?” he asked, referring to the commander of the forces who torched the Second Temple in 70 CE.
“No one will try to tell you how to dress or try to change you. Just come and be with us,” Chen told Ben-David. “If you don’t want to put on a uniform, help where you can — volunteer in hospitals, mental health institutions, wherever you want. We only have one country.”
A slight young man in a skullcap exited the induction center. He was Alexander Alkalai, 20, a recent immigrant from Paris. Alkalai said he planned to join a combat unit.
“I’m going in because I have to, because it’s not fair that some go and some don’t,” he said.
A bearded man who had come to escort one of his 13 children to be exempted, and who identified himself only as Zvi, was waiting outside the induction center. He said joining the military was simply “against the Torah.”
“Jews were martyred in the Crusades rather than do precisely things like this,” he said. He blamed criticism of the ultra-Orthodox on “left-wingers who hate religion.”
“When a soldier succeeds, it is because of our prayers,” he said.
His son, a teenager in a long black coat, would not give his name. Asked if he would join the army now that the law had changed, he said, “The Torah is also the law.”
“Whatever the rabbis say, I’ll do,” he said.
Another youth, this one in a white T-shirt and shorts, stood bareheaded nearby, waiting to be allowed past the gate. He held a cigarette in one hand and a soda can in the other.
Spying a counterpoint to the ultra-Orthodox teenagers, a reporter asked him which unit he was planning to join.
“Me?” he laughed. “I’m going to the psychiatrist to get an exemption.”