Liberman says all must serve, as haredim protest ruling against draft dodging

Backing High Court, defense minister says all citizens should do army or national service; ultra-Orthodox parties say he must honor coalition agreements

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox IDF soldiers at the Peles Military Base in the Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox IDF soldiers at the Peles Military Base in the Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday backed a High Court ruling against draft dodging by members of the ultra-Orthodox community, saying all Israelis should serve the state, even as religious parties in the governing coalition angrily vowed to fight the move.

Tuesday’s High Court decision strikes down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermines equality.

Speaking at an event of his hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party, Liberman said he expects “every young person aged 18 to serve in the army or national service.”

“We are talking about service for everyone, that there no longer be type ‘A’ and type ‘B.’ I am talking about Jews, Muslims and Christians.”

“No one should say that you can’t expect from the Arabs to serve in the Israel Defense Force, or national service. It is possible. We will demand it,” he said.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman attends an event of his Yisrael Beytneu party in Jerusalem, September 13, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Liberman added that there is no need to jail those who refuse to serve, but said they could be given a criminal record.

“If we want to be efficient and effective then we need to be smart, and not make those who refuse into heroes.”

In the past those who have not turned up at army recruitment centers on their induction dates have been later arrested and even detained by the military police.

The minister said punitive financial measures could be taken such as withdrawing government subsidies to those who refuse to serve, or education institutes that harbor them.

“There are effective tools to explain to objectors to serve, that there is a price, and that it applies to everyone.”

Despite the ruling, the court suspended its decision for one year to allow for preparations for the new arrangement — which also provides the government with the opportunity to pass a new law.

Ultra-Orthodox political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism held an emergency meeting at the Knesset and indicated they will draft new legislation that could seek to override the court ruling and keep the exemption in place.

The ultra orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties hold an emergency meeting at the Knesset regarding the supreme court’s decision on ultra-Orthodox exemptions from compulsory military service, September 13, 2017. (Flash90)

Speaking to press at the meeting, UTJ leader Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said he intends to introduce a new law on the army draft issue that will included a clause to prevent it being cancelled.

“No one will be inducted into the army,” he vowed.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads the Shas party said, “There is a mass of intervention here, the court is trying to change the status quo.”

Deri lamented that while millions are spent on elections, public representatives are beholden to the Supreme Court that, he said, frequently intervenes.

“It is a matter of values and outlook on life and that is why the public chooses its representatives. Someone is directing us. We are working all the time for the Supreme Court judges and that can’t be.”

Deri stressed that there are coalition agreements that the parties to the government must keep to, including Liberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu party.

“We are convinced that all the coalition members will vote for the changes we will bring to the law.”

The ultra-Orthodox parties form a key part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and have often acted as kingmakers in Israeli politics.

Around 10 percent of Israel’s eight million people are considered ultra-Orthodox.

The issue is part of a decades-old debate over whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying at seminaries should perform mandatory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population.

Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony on May 26, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

After reaching age 18, men must serve two years and eight months, while women must serve for two years.

In 2015, lawmakers passed legislation extending their exemption from duty, reversing a law passed the previous year that would have seen it expire.

Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion initially granted the exemption in the early years of the state, which at the time affected only 400 students.

The ultra-Orthodox are however today among the fastest-growing segments of Israel’s population, with projections that they could account for one-quarter of the total population by 2050.

‘Not just for suckers’

They oppose serving for a variety of reasons, with the most extreme believing a Jewish state is not allowed before the coming of the Messiah.

Others argue that yeshiva study is just as important to Israel as military service or that ultra-Orthodox soldiers would be confronted with salty language and other nonreligious behaviour.

There have been frequent and sometimes violent protests by the ultra-Orthodox community against the draft during which demonstrators have clashed with police.

Yesh Atid party leade rMK Yair Lapid speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, September 12, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party who pushed to remove the exemption as part of the previous government in 2014, welcomed the court’s decision as a victory of “values.”

Lapid, now in the opposition, also criticized Netanyahu, saying the prime minister could not continue to avoid the issue and that “conscription is for everyone, not just for the suckers who don’t have a party in the coalition.”

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