After draft law passes, sides draw battle lines

Backers of measure to force ultra-Orthodox into military say work has just begun, but opposing groups slam law, petition court to overturn it

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Ultra-Orthodox protesters and police outside a prison where a draft dodger was held earlier this year. (photo credit: Avishag Shaar Yeshuv/Flash 90)
Ultra-Orthodox protesters and police outside a prison where a draft dodger was held earlier this year. (photo credit: Avishag Shaar Yeshuv/Flash 90)

Supporters of a bill conscripting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to the military on pain of criminal penalties said their work had only begun with the passage of the law Wednesday, while opponents said the move marked a “dark day” in the country’s history.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party made drafting ultra-Orthodox men a central platform in the January 2013 elections, told news site Ynet he was “satisfied, but not happy.”

“This is a revolution, but from this moment we are obligated to ensure that the Haredim integrate well into the IDF and the labor force, and that the secular society will accept them. I am pleased because this is a major correction for a population that the state barely paid attention to,” he said.

The Forum for Citizen Equal Rights and Obligations petitioned the High Court shortly after the vote to strike down the law, saying it infringed on personal freedoms and dealt a blow to equality. The High Court rejected the appeal on Wednesday afternoon.

Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), who played a central role in piecing the bill together, told the Knesset that though the bill’s main sections wouldn’t come into effect until 2017, parts would take effect immediately.

“The inherent changes in this law begin tomorrow morning – starting tomorrow the failure to meet the targets will result in cuts in the budgets of the relevant yeshivas, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox will join the workforce and will take an active part in Israel’s economy.”

Peri also decried the opposition’s decision to boycott the bill’s debate and vote entirely. “The absence of the Labor Party from the vote is grating. It was their duty to the public they serve,” he said.

Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett praised the bill in a video shot outside the Knesset. “This bill will allow the hundreds of thousands of Haredi ultra-Orthodox men to join the Israeli workforce, and join the Israeli national service and military. We’re making history today.”

However, other members of his party did not agree with the bill. One, Yoni Chetboun, was the lone no vote on the measure, while MK Moti Yogev said his support was the result of coalition discipline and not personal approval of the legislation.

“The law, as it was passed, harms the goal of enlisting Haredim into the IDF, harms other values we hold dear in the Jewish Home, and will demand an internal and external reorganization, including an appeal of our cooperation with the Yesh Atid party, for the people of Israel, the Torah of Israel, the land of Israel, and the security of Israel,” Yogev said.

Several ultra-Orthodox MKs used the term “black day” to express disappointment over the bill’s passage.

“This harsh law doesn’t do anything for enlistment, since no yeshiva student learning Torah will enlist in the army or do national service, not today and not in a few years,” UTJ head Moshe Gafni said, according to Haredi news website Kikar Hashabbat.

Hiddush, an NGO promoting religious freedom in Israel, panned the measure, saying that the “bill that was approved isn’t a law to share the burden, and is also not a draft law, but is a law that will perpetuate evasion and exemption, a law that is the complete opposite of sharing the burden.”

In contrast, a Labor Party spokesperson said the party supported the measure in principle — albeit with certain reservations regarding some of its details — and would have voted for it if it were not for the fact that it was boycotting the vote for other reasons.

The terms of the measure, also known as the Equal Service Bill, which was approved by the Knesset’s Shaked Committee last month, stipulate a three-year transitional period which will begin once the Knesset passes the legislation. During those three years, a target will be set for the number of ultra-Orthodox enlistees each year. The target number will rise each year until 2017, when it will reach 5,200 new Haredi enlistees.

The most recent versions of the Draft Law faced scathing criticism from ultra-Orthodox leaders over the inclusion of individual criminal sanctions against draft-dodgers that would kick in if the community as a whole failed to meet rising quotas for the draft. But the bill has also faced criticism from proponents of an equal draft for delaying such criminal sanctions until mid-2017, after the next election.

Last week, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox gathered at the entrance to Jerusalem for a massive protest against the bill.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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