A bill that would significantly increase enlistment among ultra-Orthodox Israelis into the IDF and national service passed its first reading in the Knesset early Tuesday morning, despite strident opposition by Haredi MKs during the marathon overnight session in the plenum.

After hours of debate, MKs voted 64 in favor and 21 against the draft law, with members of the ultra-Orthodox parties voicing vehement opposition. Members of the governing Likud-Beytenu, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home parties voted in favor of the bill, as did the opposition Labor Party. The bill must now pass through two more votes on the Knesset floor before becoming law.

The proposal gives the ultra-Orthodox population a four-year transition period, at the end of which all but an elect group of 1,800 students will serve either in the Israel Defense Forces or in national service. According to the plan, most ultra-Orthodox men will no longer be able to claim exemptions from military service based on yeshiva study by 2017.

Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), chairman of the eponymous ministerial committee that drafted the bill, presented the proposed legislation before the Knesset and said its approval would mark “an end to the era in which 50 percent of every graduating class doesn’t serve the country and doesn’t assume responsibility for the Israeli economy.”

“It’s the end of the era in which we discriminate between secular Jewish blood and Haredi Jewish blood, while our enemies don’t make that distinction,” Peri said.  

During his speech, Haredi MKs exited the hall en masse in protest and, joined by some constituents in the adjoining hallway, read psalms and prayers of supplication, and blew a ram’s horn. After the first reading passed by a wide margin, the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers tore their clothes in a traditional sign of lamentation.

MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) called Tuesday’s vote “a dark day” for Israel and said Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid), who spearheaded the push for the bill, was “a man with a smug, stinking smile.”

In a theatrical display of protest at the podium, MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) handcuffed himself to the microphone, and it took Knesset ushers several minutes to extricate him from his fetters. Knesset Speaker MK Yuli Edelstein upbraided Porush and said he would be dealt with by the Knesset Ethics Committee. 

The ultra-Orthodox weren’t the only members of the opposition to reject the bill. Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-on addressed parliament, saying the legislation in its present form “has no equality in it and no real division of the burden.”

“The law the government presents is a bluff that pushes it off four years and entrenches shortened service for religious soldiers,” she said. 

Although his party backed the new law in its first reading, MK Itzik Shmuli (Labor) said the “Peri draft is far from perfect,” and that it merely pushes responsibility for the problem onto the next government.

Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, the chairman of the ministerial committee that drafted the bill, addresses the Knesset early Tuesday morning, July 23, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, the chairman of the ministerial committee that drafted the bill, addresses the Knesset early Tuesday morning, July 23, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

Before the second and third readings of the bill, which are done together, the legislation returns to committee. So it is unlikely to become law before the current Knesset session ends next Wednesday. The bill passed a preliminary cabinet hurdle earlier in the month with 14 ministers voting in favor and four abstaining: Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Yair Shamir, Sofa Landver and Uri Ariel.

The bill has been bitterly opposed by portions of the ultra-Orthodox community, many of whom have vowed to fight the new law and go to jail rather than serve in the military. Community leaders fear enlistment in the army will make it harder for the ultra-Orthodox to keep a strict interpretation of Jewish law and will cause spiritually perilous mixing with the secular population. Tuesday morning’s vote came amid a spate of violent assaults on ultra-Orthodox soldiers by members of their community who oppose enlistment of Haredim into the military.

But lawmakers and others say drafting the ultra-Orthodox is essential to integrating that community and will also help “equalize the burden” of military service across Jewish Israeli society.

Until last year, the ultra-Orthodox could claim an exemption under the Tal Law, which granted open-ended deferments of service for yeshiva students. However, the High Court of Justice declared that law unconstitutional last year, setting politicians and military brass scrambling to come up with a solution for drafting Haredim into the army.

Aaron Kalman contributed to this report.