A bill requiring eligible ultra-Orthodox men to serve in the military or national service programs has sparked a flurry of responses since its approval by the cabinet on Sunday.
The bill, which will go into effect in 2017, will require all but 1,800 haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men of eligible age to report for duty, with the option of deferring service for three years. Following the approval, several haredi MKs accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett of lending a hand to destroying Torah study, and warned that the law would instigate a civil war.
According to haredi newspaper Mishpacha (Jewish Family Weekly), the man who is supposed to select the 1,800 "exceptional students" who will receive annual exemptions from service is especially angry. The national Yeshiva Board, headed by Rabbi Haim Aharon Kaufman, is reportedly listed in the bill as the body tasked with recommending the 1,800 names. Kaufman told the newspaper the organization would be in no way related to the selection process.
"It is a lie. We have repeatedly clarified that we would not lend a hand to this bill," Kaufman said. "We will not be a part, in any way, in deciding who is exempt and who isn't. I have no idea why we were included in the final version of the bill."
"The decision is a black mark on the State of Israel, which is turning into the only country in the world where Torah study is not legitimate," said MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) on Sunday. "The students studying Torah are the ones protecting the entire world, as the prophet said: 'If My covenant be not with day and night, if I have not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth' (Jeremiah 33:25). They are the foundation on which the Jewish people exist."
Gafni argued that the government's legislation does not have the power to stop the haredim from studying Torah.
"If anyone thinks that, as a result of this law, anyone will close their Gemara book and stop studying Torah, they are sadly mistaken," Gafni said. "We don't pay attention to politicians who have turned the topic into a political agenda. We will not forgive Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the chairman of the Likud party, who enjoyed our sweeping support for decades, or Naftali Bennett, the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, which is considered a religious party that includes students of Torah."
Fellow United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman, the chairman of the party, said, "The approval of the conscription law is a continuation of the ongoing rule of annihilation, whose aim is to destroy Torah study in Israel. Anyone who thinks that coercion, decrees and threats will defeat the students of the Torah is very wrong. Look back to our people's long history and you will learn that in fact the opposite is the case."
Litzman described the current government as a "government that hates the religion of Israel."
"Anyone taking part in this government of hatred and destruction will get their punishment," he said. "The students of the holy yeshivot will obviously prefer to go to prison, sustain financial penalties and endure any punishment rather than stop studying Torah."
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who supported the bill, came out in its defense on Sunday.
"Even the leaders of the haredi population understand that it is not good for their community to continue being the poorest population in Israel, and that the yeshivot are turning from institutions of brilliant Torah study into safe havens from the authorities," Lapid told Army Radio. "They feel the pressure from their younger generation in a much more powerful way than we do, that they can't go on like this, but they are bound by their own rhetoric."
Lapid vowed that "three years from now, 70 percent of the haredim will have enlisted, which is the national average for all Israeli citizens. We don't want the haredim to feel like they are hated. You can't say that when all we want of them is the same thing we expect of our own children."
"For one day, we are allowed to say that we are happy about this historic change," Lapid said. "There were compromises, and I could have acted like Tehran and decided that if it isn't the way that I want it, it won't be at all, but I preferred to have the proposal approved."
Meanwhile, the Israeli Forum for Citizen Equal Rights and Obligations, an NGO promoting mandatory military service for all citizens, also accused the government on Sunday, but from a different perspective.
"It is not clear why the press is fooled by Lapid's spin into reporting that an 'equality of sharing the burden' law has been passed. The proposal that the cabinet approved today was a decision to defer the conscription of haredim by another four years," the NGO said. "Mark our words: In July 2014 we will not see any more haredim enlisting than there were in 2012."
MK Nachman Shai (Labor) also criticized the cabinet vote, describing it as "much ado about nothing."
"This conscription law is a bad, twisted version of the Tal Law," he said, referring to the law that expired in 2012, which in essence provided haredim with a blanket exemption from military service. "We traded one evil for another. The fundamental problem of inequality in the sharing of the burden within Israeli society will not progress one centimeter."
Meanwhile, yeshiva students interviewed outside the seminary where they live and study said they should have a right to devote themselves full time to the study of the Holy Scriptures.
"We agree that everyone should guard the country but we also think that each one has his own way to guard the country," yeshiva student Yisrael Rosenthal said. "Maybe most of the residents in Israel believe in the Torah and in religious rituals but we, who do really believe in it, we think that a page of Jewish religious scripture is like a weapon. Whether you like it or not, this is the reality."
Another student, Yossi, called the government's decision "outrageous."
"To pass this law about the burden sharing is totally outrageous. In a democratic state it's impossible," Yossi said. "If there is a reliable person who is not a true democrat and does not believe in democracy then he can do it, like any dictatorship. But it's clearly not a democratic act when it goes against the opinions, the ideology and the faith of other people."
A recent government study found that some 3,500 haredim already serving in the military had a better chance of integrating into the workforce after completing their service.
Haredim make up 10 percent of Israel's population of 8 million, and they are expanding rapidly.