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Israel moves to limit exemptions to military service

JERUSALEM — After years of heated public debate and political wrangling, Israel’s Parliament on Wednesday approved landmark legislation that will eventually eliminate exemptions from compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox students enrolled in seminaries.

The issue has become a social and political lightning rod in a country where most Israeli Jewish 18-year-olds are subjected to compulsory military service for up to three years.

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Many Israelis, who see conscription as part of a deeper culture war between the secular and modern Orthodox Jews and the ultra-Orthodox, have been demanding a more equitable sharing of the responsibilities of citizenship and voted in last year’s elections on that basis.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid, one of the parties that promoted the new legislation in the governing coalition, wrote on his Facebook page soon after the vote, “To the 543,458 citizens of Israel who elected Yesh Atid: Today you have passed the equal sharing of the burden.”

But the law, approved 65-1, is unlikely to allay the acrimony about ultra-Orthodox recruitment and might even exacerbate tensions. The opposition in the 120-seat Parliament, the Knesset, boycotted the vote in an uproar over what it has called unfair political dealing within the coalition as it moved to pass military service legislation and two other contentious bills this week.

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Ultra-Orthodox leaders have reacted with fury and are threatening to roll back the slow, voluntary trend that was already underway in their community toward military and national service. And nongovernmental monitoring groups immediately petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court, seeking to overturn the new law on the grounds that it does not go far enough in enforcing the principle of equality.

For one thing, the law includes an adjustment period of three years in which increased service will be encouraged but not mandatory. It also gives the ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, or those who fear God, a choice between military service and civilian national service, unlike ordinary recruits, and it allows students at seminaries, or yeshivas, to defer service for several years beyond the age of 18.

“The whole idea that the law promotes equality is not really convincing,” said professor Mordechai Kremnitzer, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research organization here, and former dean of the law faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

By the end of the three-year period, Kremnitzer said, there will be new elections and a new government, possibly including Haredi parties, “and the whole law would become thin air.”

Although the law stops short of enforcing conscription for all Haredi young men, ultra-Orthodox leaders are outraged over symbolic aspects. They argue Torah study should be a priority in Israel, a country that defines itself as the Jewish state, and the yeshiva students perform a spiritual duty crucial for protecting the country.

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