Previous haredi protests against the draft
Previous haredi protests against the draftFlash90

Several hundred haredi Jews demonstrated in Jerusalem on Sunday to protest against the Supreme Court ruling that would do away with deferment for full time yeshiva study, which could require them to serve in the army like their secular counterparts. They were also protesting the arrest of a haredi conscientious objector whom the army views as a deserter.

The demonstration in the haredi Mea Shearim neighbourhood of the city was organized by the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit community. Rabbis gave speeches in Yiddish, while a banner read: "We're Jews and therefore will not enlist in the Zionist army."

Last week's Israeli Supreme Court decision strikes down a law exempting haredi men engaged in religious study from military service under special conditions, by saying it undermines equality. The decision raises the possibility that they could be forced into service, a highly contentious proposition with political implications.However, the court suspended its decision for one year to allow for preparations for the new arrangement -- which also provides the government with the opportunity to pass a new law.

This would be the third draft law, the first two having been struck down by an activist Supreme Court which, as former Orthodox Supreme Court Justice Tzvi Tal said in an interview for the Makor Rishon paper, does not accept the value of Torah study in the religious community, nor take the need to preserve harmony and take the delicate makeup of Israeli society into account. The previous draft laws were attempts to integrate haredi young men into the army gradually - the Yesh Atid party failed in its attempt to insert a clause making it a criminal offense to avoid army duty - but those who filed suit were not willing to wait.

Haredi political parties and their allies in government are likely to draft new legislation that could seek to override the court ruling and keep the exemption in place. The haredi parties form a key part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition, and have often acted as kingmakers in Israeli politics.

At the establishment of the state, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion agreed to the request of the Hazon Ish, the leading Torah Sage at the time, to allow exemptions for Torah students in order to renew the world of Torah study destroyed by the Nazis. As the number of exemptions for yeshiva students grew, the issue became the subject of debate, but was only addressed when the Tal Law was passed in 2002. For ten years, the law provided haredim with a military deferment until they turned 22 years old, and then during a “decision year” they chose whether to work for a year in civilian national service or enlist for 16 months

Israeli men must serve two years and eight months when they turn 18, and women must serve for two. Religious Zionist rabbis created the National Service for young women, as well as hesder and mechina programs, constituting different means of combining yeshiva study and army, while the haredi community did not, preventing them from leaving the yeshiva and joining the work force. Many haredim did serve in what was called Shlav Bet (second stage) serrvice and worked after that period, but most did not, leading to antagonism but also to increasing poverty within the community.

Over the past few years, since the passing of the Tal Law, meant to organize procedures for haredi integration into the IDF, there have been successful attempts to establish special programs, such as Nahal Haredi and the techonological Shahar Kachol, that take haredi needs into consideration and prevent the influence of secular society on haredi soldiers. However, the number of exemptions continues to grow.

The haredim seek exemption for a variety of reasons, with only the anti-Zionists among them believing a Jewish state is not allowed before the coming of the Messiah, but most believing, as do religious Zionists, that Torah study is just as important to Israel's survival as military service. The debate between Religious Zionist and haredi Jews is over how those who receive exemptions are chosen - should all those who enter yeshivas receive unlimited exemptions, as in the haredi world, or should only those who able to be outstanding Torah scholars receive them while others enlist after a period of yeshiva study, as in the religious Zionist world.