On Wednesday, March 6th the Israeli government's Shaked Committee approved a law proposal that would extend forced conscription to the Jewish Orthodox. Today in Israel, military service is mandatory for all Jewish citizens, except the ultra Orthodox. The history of this exemption goes back to the founding of the state and has caused increasing tension between the secular and religious communities. Despite the law proposal only moving into the Parliamentary plenum next week and potentially being impossible to implement, the three main sects of the Ultra Orthodox held their own historic meeting and joined forces against it. On Sunday, nearly half a million ascended on Jerusalem. Shutting down the entrance to the city, they held a massive prayer demonstration. The Real News' Lia Tarachansky spoke to Shahar Ilan, a lobbyist in support of forced conscription and Itzik Sudri, the former spokesperson of SHAS, the biggest Orthodox party.
LIA TARACHANSKY, PRODUCER: On Wednesday, March 6, the Israeli government's Shaked Committee approved a law proposal that would extend forced conscription to the Jewish Orthodox. The proposal will be brought before the parliament this week and is expected to pass, despite the 18 seats held by Shas and other ultra-Orthodox parties in the opposition.
Today in Israel military service is mandatory for all Jewish citizens except the ultra-Orthodox. The history of this exemption goes back to the founding of the state and has caused increasing tension between the secular and religious communities.
Following the 2012 social justice protests, a new party, under the leadership of journalist Yair Lapid, was formed with the promise of equalizing the burden when it comes to military service. The slogan has become the party's political crutch, and after the law proposal passed just the first reading, its leader rushed to declare a historic win for the nation.
YAIR LAPID, ISRAELI FINANCE MINISTER (YESH ATID PARTY) (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): A distortion of the rules, which lasted 65 years, has been resolved today because we were determined and stood our ground.
TARACHANSKY: Writing in Haaretz last week, Yossi Klein says "Coca-Cola's catchphrase "love life" is a good motto. Who doesn't love life? "It's a good slogan", even though it doesn't actually say anything and has no connection to pop drinks. "Equalizing the burden" is also a good slogan. It's catchy and convincing, despite not saying anything.
Shahar Ilan is a lobbyist for Hiddush, an organization supporting the conscription of the Orthodox.
SHAHAR ILAN, VICE PRESIDENT, HIDDUSH (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There is something completely absurd here as one government took on a very difficult decision whose meaning is a head-on confrontation with an entire population and says to the next government, you enforce it.
The law proposal says that Orthodox who do not enlist will be arrested, and no one really believes that we'll arrest thousands of Yeshiva students. But the intention or the declaration that we'll arrest those who don't serve in the army enrages the Orthodox community.
TARACHANSKY: Despite the law proposal only moving into the parliamentary plan of next week and potentially being impossible to implement, the three main sects of the ultra-Orthodox held their own historic meeting and joined forces against it. On Sunday, nearly half a million ascended on Jerusalem. Shutting down the entrance to the city, they held a massive prayer demonstration.
The committee that brought forward the law was formed by the union of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid Party with the settlers party the Jewish Home. While the Jewish Home Party is also religious, its members do serve in the army, and unlike the ultra-Orthodox, both men and women work.
Today there are roughly 120,000 male Yeshiva students over 18 on whom the law may apply if it gets implemented. Itzik Sudri is the former spokesperson of Shas, the biggest ultra-Orthodox party, which today leads the religious bloc in the opposition.
INTERVIEWER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Much of the rage is directed at the Jewish Home Party, which is also a religious party, but a different kind of religious.
ITZIK SUDRI, FMR. SPOKESPERSON, SHAS PARTY: That's right. The nationalist-religious parties are known as the Settlers. The Orthodox's disappointment with the Jewish Home is tremendous. While it's true we always had differences in our world view and lifestyles, but there was always a mutual respect. And this alliance was an unwritten agreement, where the Orthodox said to the settlers, you will help us protect the Torah of Israel [by praying], and in exchange we will help you protect the land of Israel--which are two completely different things. The moment the Jewish Home, the party that represents the settlers, violated this alliance, saying they will no longer help us protect the Torah, the Orthodox replied, we are no longer obliged to help you protect the land of Israel.
ILAN: As Israel is becoming more and more a society of polarized minorities, the harder it is for it to reach agreements, to solve issues without conflict. The issue of "equalizing the burden" of the Orthodox's army service has been tearing the Israeli society for over 60 years. But because the Orthodox community has grown so much, it is no longer a moral question of equality, but a very practical question of the future of the economy and the future of the army.
TARACHANSKY: The ultra-Orthodox have traditionally been included in the hard-right bloc, but for the most part they're not even Zionists. Most believe that the Jewish rule over biblical Israel can only be resurrected after the return of the Messiah, and so range from active anti-Zionism to accepting the state retrospectively.
SUDRI: As the Shas Party, as someone who's a part of the movement, we see ourselves as the most Zionist, because we have our view of what is Zionism. So if you ask me if I'm a Zionist, you have to first define Zionism.
INTERVIEWER: So define Zionism.
SUDRI: In my view, it is to see the state of Israel as a Jewish state, first and foremost seeing it in its Jewish identity.
INTERVIEWER: So different sets of rights [for Jews]?
SUDRI: Jewish and democratic, but Jewish above democratic. Where its Judaism clashes with democracy, in our view, the Judaism is more important than democracy.
ILAN: They feel attacked because of the demand, which is quite justified, that the Orthodox education system start teaching general subjects, because in the Orthodox education the Israeli government is funding they barely learn mathematics, which violates a number of international conventions and hurts the ability of Orthodox boys to work in the future. The Orthodox's biggest fear is that if their young enlist, they will not remain Orthodox, because of the army's secular influences.
INTERVIEWER: So it's not the morality of war, or of the occupation, or of even being in an army?
ILAN: The Orthodox are the most right-wing in Israeli society. I mean ... if you poll their positions, you'll find more Orthodox with right-wing positions than settlers.
SUDRI: The stereotype [in Israel] is to see a religious person and assume he's ultra right-wing, to put him on the far-right margins with the insular groups. And while the Orthodox community is very conservative in its world view regarding its daily life, but regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we have a principle, a faith-based, religious principle that forbids provoking the nations of the world. The Orthodox perspective agrees with the idea of two states for two peoples and returning lands for peace.
TARACHANSKY: The historic unification of the three streams of ultra-Orthodoxy to organize the Jerusalem demonstration may create a new bloc in Israeli politics, according to Sudri, becoming the determining voice in fateful decisions.
ILAN: The Orthodox members of Parliament, when they arrived to the [organizing] meeting of the Great Rabbis, said they had to thank Finance Minister Lapid for uniting them. The competition between the Orthodox streams is very high, and the cultural differences between them are very big.
SUDRI: In essence, the political map in Israel is completely changing. There have always been two major political blocs, the left and the right blocs, and the Orthodox parties were always counted in the right bloc. So in that sense the political map has totally changed. Now there's a left and right bloc, and also an Orthodox bloc. So all kinds of important, fateful decisions in Israel that will change/determine the agendas of the Israeli society, the Orthodox will be the tipping scales. They can no longer be automatically counted on the right. That's the dramatic change that's currently taking place.
TARACHANSKY: For The Real News, I'm Lia Tarachansky in Jerusalem.