JERUSALEM — Shmuel Aharon kept one hand on his prayer book and another on the shoulder of his 17-year-old son as they navigated the streets of Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood one recent day.
The father of eight was walking his oldest child to the yeshiva, or religious school, where the young man often spends 10 to fifteen hours a day devoted to prayer and the study of religious texts.
“Boys his age are at the height of their learning. Their minds are clear for God’s teachings. What are boys his age doing if not dedicating themselves to God? Finding trouble and setting themselves on the wrong path,” Aharon said.
If the Aharons were typical Israelis, Ahoran’s son soon would be heading to the Israeli army for two years of compulsory service that by law every Israeli man and woman must serve when they turn 18.
But Ahoran’s son won’t be serving. The Aharons are among tens of thousands of religious Jewish families whose children are exempt from military service for religious study. It is an exclusion that angers many Israelis, who see it as special treatment for a group that makes up 10 percent of Israel’s population but could, by the year 2060, be as much as 30 percent of the Israeli population, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. What happens to Israel’s ability to defend itself then if the ultra-Orthodox don’t serve is a question many Israelis ask.
The ultra-Orthodox have a different assessment, however, of what makes Israel strong.
“We hear Israelis say that it is not fair that they serve in the army and we don’t, that their blood protects us,” said David Amin, a 23-year-old seminary student who immigrated to Israel from New York. “But that is not how we see it. We believe that our prayers, our religious study, that is what truly protects the State of Israel. It is not armies that save them, it is God’s will.”
A fellow seminary student, Levi Avramson, echoed his words.
“They say that the survival of the State of Israel was a miracle,” Avramson said. “They don’t understand that God gives those miracles, they are his will. Our prayer saves them, too, even if they don’t believe or understand. For us, to pray is to protect this country, exactly like the army does.”
The dispute over military service is a longstanding one, dating to Israel’s independence. But the dispute has taken on a new urgency. Earlier this year, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox are illegal and gave the government until Aug. 1 – Wednesday – to come up with an alternative system. With just days until that deadline, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the midst of a crisis in his government coalition.
Earlier this month, the centrist Kadima Party announced that it was withdrawing from the coalition because of disagreements over the new draft law. Several ultra-Orthodox partners in Netanyahu’s coalition also have expressed concern that they will not be able to stay in the government if the new law threatens their constituents.
“Netanyahu’s government won’t fall because of disagreements over Iran or the economy, but over the ultra-Orthodox,” concluded an editorial in Israel’s largest Hebrew daily, Yediot Ahronot.
Beyond the coalition government’s fate, however, the issue underscores a deep division over what it means to be an Israeli, a divide that is likely only to deepen as the ultra-Orthodox share of the population becomes larger and larger.
“It makes my blood boil that my son will go and join the army and put his life in danger, while the ultra-Orthodox live safely in Jerusalem studying their books,” said Ahava Tomer, a 42-year-old mother of four from south Tel Aviv. She attended a protest earlier in July along with her husband, who is a reserve soldier in Israel’s military.
For the ultra-Orthodox, however, Israel is a different world – a foreign land.
The winding streets of Mea Shearim, the West Jerusalem enclave for the religious community, seem much further away than the hour it takes to reach the gleaming skyscrapers of Tel Aviv. Black-hatted and -coated men walk together with rushed gaits, as women push strollers at a distance. Yiddish is heard as often as Hebrew, and a separate economy seems to dictate prices and goods aimed at ensuring what the ultra-Orthodox call a “modest, decent Jewish home.”
“We have always been our own country within the country,” said Sarah Ben Tzvi, a 31-year-old mother of three who lives in Mea Shearim. She likes it that way.
“From the outside it might look like we are all Jews,” she said. “But to us the Jews who don’t obey God’s laws are not like us at all. To send our children to them, to serve in their military, it is like to send your child to pagans in Africa. That is really how we see it.”
She looked on approvingly as a square in the middle of Mea Shearim suddenly filled with hundreds of ultra-Orthodox boys led by rabbis of their religious seminaries. Ages 12 and younger, the boys prayed in the middle of the street for over an hour, asking God not to forsake them and “sell them into the hands of others.” Signs many wore around their necks said “Save me.”
“This is something every devout Jew understands,” Ben Tzvi said. “To take them at that sensitive age – when they should be devoted to study and prayer – and to send them to the army where they will be exposed to things that are not part of our community – we cannot accept it.”
From their apartment on the outskirts of Mea Shearim, the Aharons said they are aware that politicians are furiously seeking a compromise that would allow the ultra-Orthodox to serve while maintaining a religious life.
“They say the food will be kept kosher to our standards, that there will be strict separation of sexes and other things that are meant to appease us,” Aharon said. “But people are still worried that the army will expose our young men to things that we do not find acceptable.”
A compromise sounds unlikely. “We don’t want anything from the state,” he said, “and don’t want them to ask anything of us.”
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.