JERUSALEM — In a step that could intensify a major rift among Israelis, the defense minister on Tuesday ordered the army to prepare for a universal draft of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
Many in the insular and rapidly growing community say they would rather go to jail than comply with an end to the decadeslong draft exemptions that have caused increasing outrage in the country.
Ehud Barak gave defense officials a month to craft a plan to put the new draft procedure into practice, trying to buy time in a last-ditch effort to find an agreed solution. His order came just hours before the expiration of a law that has granted tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews exemptions from military duty, and it followed a Supreme Court ruling against extending that arrangement.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 2 TV Tuesday night that the army would begin widening its list of recruits immediately.
‘‘Starting tomorrow, there’s a new law about equal service. The Israeli military will decide whom to draft, how many to draft — and it will draft,’’ Netanyahu pledged.
Meir Porush, an ultra-Orthodox leader and a former lawmaker, said drafting his people would unleash a ‘‘civil war.’’ He said the military neither needed nor wanted to be flooded with devoutly religious conscripts.
‘‘The Israeli military is not ready, won’t be ready, and doesn’t want to be ready’’ to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews, Porush said. Privately, some defense officials agreed.
What began 60 years ago as exemptions for a few hundred top rabbinical students to symbolically rebuild the great Jewish houses of learning obliterated in the Holocaust has mushroomed — partly due to a very high birthrate — into dispensation for 60,000 able-bodied Israeli adult men.
Most other Jews are drafted into the military at age 18, with men serving three years and then decades of yearly reserve duty, and women serving about two years.
The disparity has long irritated Israel’s secular and modern Orthodox Jewish majority, who have to delay university studies and careers during their service. Meanwhile ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 percent of Israel’s population, continue their nonstop study of religious tomes, usually to the exclusion of modern subjects like science and foreign languages.
Secular Israelis tend to reject the argument by the ultra-Orthodox that their devotion to Judaism amounts to another type of defense of the country.
Resentment against the ultra-Orthodox for their exemptions has been growing along with their proportion of the population and political clout, as their parties often hold the balance of power in Israel’s fractious, multiparty political system, winning outsize budgets for their institutions and subsidies for their people, many of whom do not hold jobs.