Among the thousands of Israelis who filled the streets of central Tel Aviv Saturday night to protest the exemption of their ultra-Orthodox countrymen from military service, Yaakov Ben Horim and his best friend were particularly angry.
The two men met 50 years ago, when they served together as combat soldiers during the state of Israel’s infancy.
“We barely knew what the state would look like then – it was, like us, still a child. But we knew that we must serve in the army, if we didn’t serve we wouldn’t have a State,” said Ben Horim. “The idea that a group of Israelis would be exempt – that they would fight to be exempt from serving – would never have occurred to us in those days. But that is because in those days we didn’t know the ultra-Orthodox.”
The issue is one of many, from separating the sexes on buses to tax exemptions for large families, on which secular and religious Israelis have clashed in recent years. At its core is a debate over the role of Judaism in the Jewish State.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt from the two-to-three year compulsory military service most Israelis serve from age 18. For secular Israelis, the exemptions are one of many perks that the ultra-Orthodox receive from the state.
“They get government funds and all sorts of benefits just for being religious! They get money for studying and praying and for having lots of babies. It’s a drain on the state economy that the rest of us have to make up,” said Shiri Manuel, one of the organizer’s of Saturday’s protest.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders argue that they are serving the State by serving god. Tucked away in the winding alleyways of Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, ultra-Orthodox spent their youths in seminaries studying religious texts. Government policy allows many of them to continue studying their entire lives, by exempting them from many taxes and giving them housing and food subsidies.
“This is a policy that goes back to Israel’s first leaders. I blame them for not for seeing the problem that the ultra-Orthodox would become,” said Ben Horim.
In 1948, just following the declaration of the state, Israel’s first president, David Ben Gurion, struck a deal with the rabbinic leadership of Israel to exempt the orthodox from military service, among other things.
That first year, government registries show that 400 ultra-Orthodox men were exempt from military service. Since then, their power and population has steadily grown. Officials estimate there are now more then 100,000 ultra-Orthodox men of eligible draft age who are currently exempt.
A ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court has struck down the current draft laws, and ordered the government to propose a new national draft law by August 1.
Those close to Ben Gurion, including Israel’s current president Shimon Peres, said the decision was made when the ultra-Orthodox were still a relatively small community that many thought would adopt a more secular lifestyle in time.
“That was a seed planted in the beginning of the state that has since grown into an ugly tree none of us can uproot – deals with the (ultra-Orthodox) to keep them happy instead of a policy that would be fair to all,” said David Ben Simson, a 41-year-old former political activist who attended Saturday’s protest with his family.
He pointed to current rumors that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition could be brought down over the rift between the secular and religious parties. Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes ultra-Orthodox parties such as Shas, also includes staunchly secular political parties such as Israel Beitenu.
While Netanyahu has cautiously supported the reform, he has also shown a willingness to bow to pressure from his religious coalition partners. Last week, Netanyahu disbanded a government panel that was set to issue a recommendation that the current exemptions for religious seminary students be slashed from 50,000 to 1,000 by 2016. The panel also recommended stiff financial penalties for draft evaders, and to triple the number of Arab citizens of Israel currently serving in Israel’s military.
“It seems so common sense, that if you are going to have a national draft, you have it for all citizens exactly the same,” said Ben Horim.
His friend, Zeev Tal, pointed to the stickers both men wore across their chest reading “Equal service for all.”