July 7, 2012

THE WAR WITHIN:

Controversy over draft law breeds culture war : Tension between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis reaches a crescendo as leaders struggle to reach a consensus on alternative to Tal Law (AP, 7/07/12)

For their supporters, seminary students are preserving a tradition that has served as the very bedrock of Judaism for thousands of years.

"Jews need to study the Bible. That is what makes us unique as a people," Yerach Tucker, a 30-year-old spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox community, said proudly as he guided a visitor through the Mir Yeshiva. "It is the essence of our lives."

But polls show the vast majority of Israelis, who risk their lives and put their careers on hold while serving in the military, object strongly to the arrangement, and many see it as the essence of everything that is wrong with their country.

This resentment has fueled a broader high-decibel culture war. In recent months, secular activists have rebelled against what they consider growing religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox, such as attempts to enforce gender segregation on buses and public places, and a religious backlash by ultra-Orthodox who feel unfairly persecuted.

"It is something so ethical, so basic, that we have all grown up upon: service, giving to the state. Everyone here has to give something to society because we are one society," said Boaz Nol, a reserve officer who is among those planning a massive protest in Tel Aviv this weekend against the continued exemptions.

The Supreme Court earlier this year ruled the draft exemptions illegal and gave the government until Aug. 1 to figure out a new, fairer system. That is proving far more difficult than expected.

Last week, the deep divisions between religious and secular parties inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government led to the collapse of a special committee formed to draft new legislation.

Netanyahu's largest governing partner, the centrist Kadima Party, is now threatening to quit the government, just two months after joining the coalition with the goal of reforming the draft. Netanyahu has vowed to find a compromise.

A glimpse into the world of the ultra-Orthodox shows just how intractable the issue has become. The draft exemptions date back to the time of Israel's independence in 1948, when founding father David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered.

As ultra-Orthodox parties became power brokers, the numbers mounted. Ultra-Orthodox officials now estimate there are about 100,000 full-time Torah learners of draft age.

The pattern has lasting ramifications. The heavy emphasis on religious study, begun early on in a separate system of elementary schools, has pushed many ultra-Orthodox men to shun the work world, relying on welfare as they spend their days immersed in holy texts. The ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens.

Steep unemployment, believed to hover around 50 percent, coupled with a high birthrate has fueled deep poverty in the ultra-Orthodox sector. With families of eight to 10 children commonplace, more than a quarter of all Israeli first graders today are ultra-Orthodox. Experts say if these trends continue, Israel's long-term economic prospects are in danger.

But changing the ways of the ultra-Orthodox will not be easy. Leaders speak proudly of centuries-old traditions of prayer and learning that they believe has allowed the Jewish people to survive such tragedies as the Spanish Inquisition, European pogroms and the Holocaust. Study in Yeshiva seminaries, they say, is no less important than military strength in protecting the country from modern threats in a hostile region.

"You have to understand, we are part of the Jewish army," said Aharon Grossman, a 30-year-old student at Mir Yeshiva. "Some people serve in tanks. We serve in yeshiva."

Ultra-Orthodox leaders insist they will never be forced to serve in the military.

Oliver Cromwell studied the Bible.

Posted by at July 7, 2012 6:36 AM
  

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