Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said changes in government policy to require more ultra-Orthodox Jews to perform national service must be made gradually to avoid exacerbating tensions.
Netanyahu said he will establish a team with Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz to work on a new law to limit deferments for ultra-Orthodox men, which will present its proposals at the next Cabinet meeting, according to an e-mailed statement today from the Prime Minister’s Office.
“I believe that a decisive majority of Israeli citizens, including many ultra-Orthodox, understand that we need a change,” Netanyahu told the Cabinet today in Jerusalem. “In order for this increased integration to succeed, we need to carry it out in stages and in a way that will not cause national rifts.”
At least 20,000 Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv last night to demand that the government cancel most draft deferments for ultra-Orthodox Jews and require them to become soldiers or perform community service. The protest movement has intensified ahead of a July 31 court-ordered deadline to rewrite the law on deferments.
Mofaz’s Kadima party, which holds the largest number of parliamentary seats, joined Netanyahu’s Likud-led government in May after the prime minister pledged to substantially reduce the number of deferments granted to ultra-Orthodox men engaged in state-subsidized religious studies.
On July 4, a government-appointed committee headed by Kadima parliament member Yohanan Plesner recommended limiting the number of deferments granted to ultra-Orthodox men for religious studies to 1,500 a year and fining those who try to avoid national service. About 8,500 religious deferments were granted in 2011.
The so-called Plesner Committee released its recommendations even though Netanyahu attempted to defuse a political crisis surrounding the issue by disbanding the panel after several members resigned in protest. Two religious parties in the coalition, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have objected to the panel’s proposals.
Working out a national service policy for the ultra-Orthodox, or haredim as they are called in Israel, would enable more of them to enter the workforce. The ultra-orthodox currently may be subject to the draft if they leave seminary studies to look for work.
About 45 percent of ultra-Orthodox men work, compared with about 80 percent of other Jewish males in Israel, according to the Bank of Israel. While the ultra-Orthodox make up about 8 percent to 10 percent of the population, they will represent 17 percent of working-age Israelis in 20 years because of their high birthrate, the bank said.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, is demanding that the government require Arab citizens to perform alternative non-military service. Netanyahu said his proposal will require Israeli Arabs to do some kind of national service.
Although some members of the Druze and Bedouin communities serve in the army, most Arab citizens are exempt from the draft. Many Arab citizens object to Israel as a Jewish state and complain that they face discrimination by the government.
“After 64 years in which the matter has not been taken care of as it should, we are undertaking a historic process - a dramatic increase in the participation of the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab public in sharing in the national burden,” Netanyahu said.