Israel passes law meant to draft ultra-Orthodox men into military

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JERUSALEM — Israel's parliament on Wednesday voted to begin drafting large numbers of ultra-Orthodox men into the military, moving to end a contentious system that enraged many secular Israelis by allowing young seminary students to evade army service.

The legislation sought to resolve an issue at the heart of a heated culture war in Israel. Instead, it only widened the rift, drawing criticism from both sides. It also could shake Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's longstanding alliance with religious political parties.

The issue of draft exemptions goes back to the times around Israel's establishment in 1948, when the government allowed several hundred gifted students to pursue religious studies. The number of exemptions has grown over the years, with thousands of young religious men evading the draft to pursue seminary studies while most other Jewish men are conscripted for three years of mandatory service.

The exemptions have caused widespread resentment toward the ultra-Orthodox and were a central issue in parliamentary elections last year. Two parties that vowed to change the system, "Jewish Home" and "Yesh Atid," scored strong gains and now sit in the center-right government.

"The change begins tomorrow morning and it is expected to transform the face of Israeli society," said Yaakov Peri, a Cabinet minister who helped spearhead the new legislation.

The ultra-Orthodox make up nearly 10 percent of Israel's 8 million people. Leaders insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage. Religious leaders have said the run-up to Wednesday's vote bordered on anti-religious incitement, and rallied opposition to the measure.

Last week, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis held a mass rally in Jerusalem.

In a sign of their dismay, a number of ultra-Orthodox lawmakers stormed out during a speech by Netanyahu at the parliament Wednesday, ahead of an address by visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron. The lawmakers returned to the chamber after Netanyahu finished speaking.

Itzhak Vaknin, a lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, said he objected to the law because it includes criminal charges for those who do not obey.

He said it is "unacceptable … that a Jew who studies the Torah is committing a felony." He said the religious community understands there is a "great need" to participate. "But there is also a great duty to study the Torah, which is the essence of our existence," he said.