“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.