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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Ultra-religious Jews could be trading yeshivas for boot camp

In Israel, everybody serves in the army except ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs.

That could soon change for the first group.

Yair Lapid, a centrist politician who campaigned on a pledge to end all military draft deferments for Jews, stunned pundits by coming in a strong second to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli elections Tuesday.

Netanyahu retained his position, but his party lost seats in Parliament, leaving him in a weaker position.

Under the Israeli parliamentary system, Netanyahu needs Lapid’s Yesh Atid party to form a new government. And that means the haredim, as ultra-Orthodox Jews are called in Hebrew, could find themselves in boot camps instead of yeshivas.

Lapid, a telegenic 49-year-old son of a Holocaust survivor, channelled the frustration of secular Israelis for whom military service is mandatory when they turn 18 — while ultra-Orthodox men and women get away with not serving.

“I feel we’re at risk that a whole generation of young Israelis, who went to the army, work hard, pay taxes, one day will look around and say hey, this country is going nowhere,” Lapid said before the election.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing alliance he formed took a step back in the elections, losing seats in Parliament, meaning that he will need to work with Lapid to form a new government.

That stance is likely to complicate things for Netanyahu, who has relied in the past on the support of the ultra-Orthodox political parties like Shas who oppose Lapid’s plans.

But Lapid doesn’t just want to get the haredim into “sharing national responsibilities,” as he called it on the campaign trail. He also wants them to get jobs.

Right now some 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men study the Torah full time, burdening the Israeli economy.

“I’m just going to tell them, listen, we have to change the deal,” Lapid said before the vote.

Some 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men study the Torah full time, burdening the Israeli economy. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, haredi men have been permitted to defer military service as long as they study full time in religious seminaries.

Most stayed in the yeshivas until they married and had numerous children, enabling them to get permanent deferment from the armed forces.

That, coupled with the haredim’s high birthrate, is causing a drain on the country’s resources that Lapid and Israeli demographers have deemed “not sustainable.”

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