Ultra-Orthodox Riots In Jerusalem

A mob of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men battled with police in Jerusalem on Sunday as over 10,000 protested a new draft ruling. Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 13% of the population in Israel but since 1948 have been exempt from military service, along with the Palestinian and Arab population. 

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The Israeli Supreme Court has overturned that exemption and has now ordered the ultra-Orthodox men to be draft-eligible. It is a move the Likud government called “perplexing.” Over 10,000 peacefully protested in their ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, but by nightfall, thousands marched toward the center of Jerusalem and rioted. Police fired water cannons laced with skunk scents into the mob to disperse it. Protestors pelted the car of an ultra-Orthodox cabinet minister with stones. 

Compulsory military service is the order of the day for most Jewish men and women in Israel. But the high court’s decision to make ultra-Orthodox men equally eligible threatens Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. As the war in Gaza drags on, his coalition has been fraying at the edges.

With the Israeli government claiming that its military has suffered 600 casualties, the push to expand the draft has been growing. In Israel, the draft begins at age 18 with two years and eight months of service required, followed by reserve service, which can run to age 51. The Israeli Defense Forces call up both men and women to serve.

Ultra-Orthodox parties are exempt so they can study in religious seminaries. The exemption dates back to 1948 when David Ben Gurion exempted 400 students to keep their traditions alive in the new state of Israel.

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Since the ultra-Orthodox parties are part of Likud’s ruling coalition, critics have said Netanyahu has put politics over national defense. As the war enters its 10th month, pressure has been growing to expand the draft. But the current balance of power is so delicate that Netanyahu’s government could easily fall without the support of two key ultra-Orthodox parties.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders argue that the draft will destroy a traditional way of life that has thrived in Israel over the last 76 years. At a recent protest in Tel Aviv, ultra-Orthodox protesters said they would leave the country before being drafted. A counter-protest sign read, “See ya!” This protest highlights the long-standing tension between the more secular Jews near the Mediterranean and the ultra-Orthodox near Jerusalem and in various Israeli settlements.

The court’s ruling comes after six years of delay from the government in coming up with a legal remedy for the draft issue. With massive numbers of reservists called up and the impact that is having on all sectors of society, the court ruled that the government has delayed too long and the draft of the ultra-Orthodox must begin now.

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Related: Israel’s Supreme Court Issues a Potentially Explosive Ruling

Likud is scrambling to find a legislative compromise that will keep its coalition together and avoid a walkout by its ultra-Orthodox allies. Some of the issues for them include ending the studies of their young men and merging them into cohesive units dominated by more middle-of-the-road and secular Jews. Besides interrupting their religious studies, they fear this could undermine their ultra-Orthodox religious practices and upbringing. 

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is not moved by this concern. He wants a more equal sharing of the burden, cost what it may.

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