JERUSALEM -- Shmuel Aharon kept one hand on his prayer book and another on the shoulder of his 17-year-old son as they navigated the streets of Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood one recent day.
The father of eight was walking his oldest child to the yeshiva, or religious school, where the young man often spends 10 to fifteen hours a day devoted to prayer and the study of religious texts.
“Boys his age are at the height of their learning. Their minds are clear for God’s teachings. What are boys his age doing if not dedicating themselves to God? Finding trouble and setting themselves on the wrong path,” Aharon said.
If the Aharons were typical Israelis, Ahoran’s son soon would be heading to the Israeli army for two years of compulsory service that by law every Israeli man and woman must serve when they turn 18.
But Ahoran’s son won’t be serving. The Aharons are among tens of thousands of religious Jewish families whose children are exempt from military service for religious study. It is an exclusion that angers many Israelis, who see it as special treatment for a group that makes up 10 percent of Israel’s population but could, by the year 2060, be as much as 30 percent of the Israeli population, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. What happens to Israel’s ability to defend itself then if the ultra-Orthodox don’t serve is a question many Israelis ask.
The ultra-Orthodox have a different assessment, however, of what makes Israel strong.
“We hear Israelis say that it is not fair that they serve in the army and we don’t, that their blood protects us,” said David Amin, a 23-year-old seminary student who immigrated to Israel from New York. “But that is not how we see it. We believe that our prayers, our religious study, that is what truly protects the State of Israel. It is not armies that save them, it is God’s will.”
A fellow seminary student, Levi Avramson, echoed his words.
“They say that the survival of the State of Israel was a miracle,” Avramson said. “They don’t understand that God gives those miracles, they are his will. Our prayer saves them, too, even if they don’t believe or understand. For us, to pray is to protect this country, exactly like the army does.”
The dispute over military service is a longstanding one, dating to Israel’s independence. But the dispute has taken on a new urgency. Earlier this year, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox are illegal and gave the government until Aug. 1 – Wednesday – to come up with an alternative system. With just days until that deadline, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the midst of a crisis in his government coalition.
Earlier this month, the centrist Kadima Party announced that it was withdrawing from the coalition because of disagreements over the new draft law. Several ultra-Orthodox partners in Netanyahu’s coalition also have expressed concern that they will not be able to stay in the government if the new law threatens their constituents.
“Netanyahu’s government won’t fall because of disagreements over Iran or the economy, but over the ultra-Orthodox,” concluded an editorial in Israel’s largest Hebrew daily, Yediot Ahronot.