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Culture war looms as Israel pledges to end ultra-Orthodox military exemptions

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JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dramatically bolstered his ruling coalition this week with a unity deal meant to help him thwart challenges from fringe factions. But Yoel Krois, a man with sidelocks past his shoulders and a record of confronting authorities, says he remains ready for a fight.

From his cramped Jerusalem office, Krois pens broadsides that paper his ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and serve as religious proclamations on issues of the day. One of the newest tells readers to resist a brewing plot to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the Israeli military.

“We will go to prison instead,” said Krois, 39, sitting beneath a photograph of himself defying police as he and fellow activists with an anti-Zionist organization known as Edah Haredit protested the opening of a parking lot on the Jewish Sabbath. “We are protected by God.”

When Netanyahu and the leader of the centrist opposition party Kadima joined forces, they said their first priority would be passing a law ending widespread military exemptions for full-time religious students. The long-neglected issue has turned into a ­public-policy nightmare: Not fixing it would perpetuate a system that the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled is unconstitutional. Fixing it could spark a culture war, as Netanyahu suggested when he vowed Thursday to make reforms “without setting public against public.”

Some say it is too late. Resentment against the ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, is intense among Israel’s secular majority and a growing number of officials. Although the current debate is focused on the military — universal conscription is central to Israeli identity — many say the issue is more broadly about spreading the burdens of citizenship to a subsidized, insular group that is expanding in size and influence.

“There is internal turmoil. It’s social, it’s economic, and it goes to the soul of Israel,” said Uri Regev, a Reform rabbi who is president of Hiddush, a religious freedom organization that is critical of ultra-Orthodox military exemptions. “The way of life that the Haredim adopt challenges our stability.”

Expanded political clout

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, granted military exemptions to what was then a group of a few hundred Haredi students, in part because it was assumed that their lifestyle would fade over time. Today, the ultra-Orthodox comprise one-tenth of Israel’s 7.8 million citizens, and 63,000 received exemptions for religious study in 2010.

In February, Israel’s Supreme Court annulled a decade-old law created to increase ultra-Orthodox participation in the army, saying it had largely failed. Last year, 15 percent of recruitment-age Haredim enlisted, compared with 75 percent in the rest of the Jewish population. The government pledged last week to craft a replacement that also drafts more Arab Israelis, who are not required to serve.

“This issue where some serve and others do not is a moral stain on Israeli society,” said Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz.

The ultra-Orthodox, while a varied group, are resistant to military service, some zealously so. Most believe the Jewish state should not exist before the Messiah’s arrival, and they insulate themselves from what they regard as the impious influences of the secular world. Their views are increasingly sparking controversies, including over Haredi demands for gender segregation on public buses.

For Haredi men, life centers on the revival of Torah scholarship, which was decimated during the Holocaust. Yitzhak Goldknopf, a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, said that makes study at religious academies, or yeshivas, as important to the Jewish state as military service.

“The new generation doesn’t remember what happened in Europe, and they do not know that without the Torah, we would not exist today,” Goldknopf said. “Yeshiva students will exist until their last drop of blood. There is no compromise on this.”

Goldknopf said secular society has excluded the Haredim and used them as political punching bags. Then again, he said, he does not believe for one second that the ultra-Orthodox will be drafted.

That is because the Haredim have gained political clout as their population has flourished. Over the years, small ultra-Orthodox political parties have sided with coalition governments — sometimes helping them survive — in exchange for subsidies and tax breaks for their communities. Ultra-orthodox parties remain in Netanyahu’s new coalition, but its expansion is likely to decrease their power.

So hopes Boaz Nol, who says he is far more representative of mainstream Israel than the black-hatted Haredi men who dot the stone sidewalks of Jerusalem. From his base an hour’s drive away in the strongly secular beach city of Tel Aviv, the army reservist and investment banker began a protest movement against Haredi exemptions. It has earned him audiences with Netanyahu and, he said, conversations with “yeshiva boys” who whisper to him that they want to join up.

“It’s about the most basic value that we all grow up with — that we all serve in the army,” said Nol, 34, sitting under an umbrella at a stylish cafe with his dog, Beyonce. “The Israeli public will not agree to such obvious discrimination.”

Study vs. employment

Economists warn that the exemptions, by requiring full-time yeshiva study, contribute to growing Haredi poverty. About 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men are unemployed. Women often work, but one income does not go far in families with an average of more than six children.

The combination of high fertility rates, poverty and an ultra-Orthodox school system that does not teach a broad curriculum is unsustainable, said Dan Ben-David, executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.

“They are going to be the future of our country,” he said. “Their skills fit a merchant class of the 19th century.”

A small but growing number of ultra-Orthodox agree. Aryeh Goldhaber, a 41-year-old Haredi furniture salesman in the town of Beit Shemesh, helped found an advocacy group for working Haredim, who he said often feel treated like second-class citizens by ultra-Orthodox who devote their lives to study and prayer.

A Haredi newspaper recently described members of his group as turncoats who are “importing poison.” Goldhaber said rabbis increasingly listen to his arguments — that he can study Torah many hours a day while also providing for his family — but are not yet willing to provide public backing.

“They’re afraid they’re going to lose their influence,” said Goldhaber, who served in the army.

Everyone agrees that crafting a new law for exemptions will be complex. Most proposals suggest a capped number of exemptions for top Haredi students and gradual increases in enlistment or civil service for others.

But drafting ultra-Orthodox en masse would be nearly impossible, said Stuart Cohen, a political studies professor at Bar-Ilan University who has long focused on the issue. Providing the gender-segregated facilities, prayer time and strictly kosher rations Haredim demand would be “intolerable” to the army and cost-prohibitive, he said.

Cohen said he believes the only solution is ending universal conscription, freeing Haredim to work. But that is not on the table.

“There is tremendous ingrained cultural commitment to the idea of a people’s army,” Cohen said. “So I think we’re just going to stumble from crisis to crisis.”

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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