JERUSALEM -- Israeli legislators approved a controversial law Wednesday to end the historic exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from mandatory military service, a decision some religious leaders decried as persecution.
The Equal Service Law approved by the Knesset, or parliament, calls for a gradual increase in the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men over a three-year period, ultimately exempting only a quota of outstanding scholars.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party pushed the legislation as a way to increase fairness for other groups whose members are drafted into the military as well as to aid the integration of ultra-Orthodox men into the workforce, welcomed the bill’s passage as a “revolution.”
Ultra-Orthodox men had been exempt from military service to allow them to pursue their religious studies, which supporters said allowed them to serve the nation through prayer and by preserving Jewish heritage. But other groups criticized the exemption, which covered some unemployed men receiving government assistance, as unfair.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a previous law allowing ultra-Orthodox men to repeatedly postpone military service until obtaining the full exemption.
Lapid acknowledged that implementation of the new law would be challenging.
“From this moment on, we are obligated to ensure ultra-Orthodox integration into the army and workforce, and that they are accepted by secular society,” Lapid said.
Lawmaker and ultra-Orthodox leader Moshe Gafni, however, called it “a black day for the state and government,” and vowed that the law would not result in the enlistment of a single religious school scholar -- “not today and not in the future.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, sharply divided on key issues including the peace process with Palestinians, rallied around the draft issue, making it a top legislative priority.
The bill was part of a legislative marathon in the Knesset, with Netanyahu’s coalition eager to clinch several of its flagship bills before breaking for spring recess next week. Others included one to increase the stability of the government and another calling for a national referendum before Israel cedes land.
To ensure approval of all three bills, the government linked them together and obliged coalition leaders to sign an agreement to support all three, angering legislators who opposed proposals individually.
Opposition leaders accused the government of tinkering with protocol and trampling procedure and boycotted votes on the bills. The laws were approved in a half-empty parliament and with virtually no opposition.
During a special Knesset session in honor of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who arrived Wednesday for a short visit to Israel and the West Bank, several lawmakers walked out on a speech by Netanyahu to protest the laws and a legislative process they denounced as aggressive. Some heckled the prime minister.
The legislators returned to hear Cameron’s speech.
Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem bureau.