Beyond the coalition government’s fate, however, the issue underscores a deep division over what it means to be an Israeli, a divide that is likely only to deepen as the ultra-Orthodox share of the population becomes larger and larger.
“It makes my blood boil that my son will go and join the army and put his life in danger, while the ultra-Orthodox live safely in Jerusalem studying their books,” said Ahava Tomer, a 42-year-old mother of four from south Tel Aviv. She attended a protest earlier in July along with her husband, who is a reserve soldier in Israel’s military.
For the ultra-Orthodox, however, Israel is a different world – a foreign land.
The winding streets of Mea Shearim, the West Jerusalem enclave for the religious community, seem much further away than the hour it takes to reach the gleaming skyscrapers of Tel Aviv. Black-hatted and -coated men walk together with rushed gaits, as women push strollers at a distance. Yiddish is heard as often as Hebrew, and a separate economy seems to dictate prices and goods aimed at ensuring what the ultra-Orthodox call a “modest, decent Jewish home.”
“We have always been our own country within the country,” said Sarah Ben Tzvi, a 31-year-old mother of three who lives in Mea Shearim. She likes it that way.
“From the outside it might look like we are all Jews,” she said. “But to us the Jews who don’t obey God’s laws are not like us at all. To send our children to them, to serve in their military, it is like to send your child to pagans in Africa. That is really how we see it.”
She looked on approvingly as a square in the middle of Mea Shearim suddenly filled with hundreds of ultra-Orthodox boys led by rabbis of their religious seminaries. Ages 12 and younger, the boys prayed in the middle of the street for over an hour, asking God not to forsake them and “sell them into the hands of others.” Signs many wore around their necks said “Save me.”
“This is something every devout Jew understands,” Ben Tzvi said. “To take them at that sensitive age – when they should be devoted to study and prayer – and to send them to the army where they will be exposed to things that are not part of our community – we cannot accept it.”
From their apartment on the outskirts of Mea Shearim, the Aharons said they are aware that politicians are furiously seeking a compromise that would allow the ultra-Orthodox to serve while maintaining a religious life.
“They say the food will be kept kosher to our standards, that there will be strict separation of sexes and other things that are meant to appease us,” Aharon said. “But people are still worried that the army will expose our young men to things that we do not find acceptable.”
A compromise sounds unlikely. “We don’t want anything from the state,” he said, “and don’t want them to ask anything of us.”