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Fury as Israel passes law extending military draft to ultra-Orthodox men

Most secular Jewish men perform three years of compulsory service, while ultra-Orthodox men have been allowed to avoid it

Israeli lawmakers have passed a contentious law to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military, the culmination of a drive for reforms that has seen mass protests by the religious community in Israel and beyond.

The issue of conscription of the ultra-Orthodox is at the heart of a cultural war in Israel. The matter featured prominently in elections last year that led to the establishment of the centre-right government, which has pushed for the new legislation.

Today’s vote passed 67-1 in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Opposition lawmakers – all 52 of them – were absent, boycotting the vote to protest what they say are strong-arm tactics by the ruling coalition meant to push through a series of laws in parliament this week.

“The change begins tomorrow morning and it is expected to transform the face of Israeli society unrecognisably,” said Yaakov Peri, from the Yesh Atid party, which has led the drive for draft reforms.

Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about eight per cent of Israel’s eight million citizens, have largely been allowed to avoid military service in order to pursue religious studies. In contrast, most secular Jewish men perform three years of compulsory service.

The stark difference continues well into adulthood. Older religious men often don’t work and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.

The ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage. But the exemptions have enraged secular and modern Orthodox Israelis who say the ultra-Orthodox are not doing their fair share. Proponents of the law say looping the ultra-Orthodox into the military will lead to their further integration into the workforce.

Israel’s central bank and international bodies, such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, have warned that high unemployment in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors threatens Israel’s economic future.

Under the law, the army would be required to draft an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews each year, with the goal of enlisting 5,200 soldiers – roughly 60 per cent of those of draft age – by mid-2017. Israel would grant financial incentives to seminaries that send their students to the army.

If the ultra-Orthodox community does not meet that quota by then, the law calls for mandatory service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and criminal sanctions for draft-dodgers.

The legislation has sparked large demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox, including a rally last week in Jerusalem that drew hundreds of thousands of people. Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York protested against the legislation.

But some secular groups have also complained because it falls short of the near-universal conscription required of other Israeli men.

With poverty and unemployment high in the religious sector, voices have emerged criticising ultra-Orthodox education, which minimises studies of subjects like maths and English.

The ultra-Orthodox have also come under fire for attempting at times to impose their conservative values, such as separation of men and women, on the broader population.