Dan Balilty, Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Deep in the heart of Mea Shearim, a Jerusalem bastion of hardline ultra-Orthodox Jews, hundreds of bearded young men in black suits have their noses burrowed into books, immersed in biblical study and oblivious to their surroundings.
They are the creme de la creme of a cloistered community, the privileged elite who are expected neither to work for a living nor serve in the military with other Israelis. As students at the prestigious Mir Yeshiva, prayer and study of scripture is their full-time job.
These young men, and their sheltered lifestyle, are at the heart of a battle that is tearing Israel apart in a clash between tradition and modernity, religion and democracy. The fight is focused on whether ultra-Orthodox males should be drafted into the military along with other Jews, but it really is about a much deeper issue: What is the place of Judaism in the Jewish state?
The issue has come to the fore as the government races to meet a Supreme Court-ordered deadline to revamp the nation's draft law. In its current form, secular males must perform three years of compulsory service when they turn 18. Ultra-Orthodox men, like the young scholars at the Mir Yeshiva, have special exemptions that allow them to continue studying in their isolated enclaves while collecting government subsidies.
For their supporters, seminary students are preserving a tradition that has served as the very bedrock of Judaism for thousands of years.
"Jews need to study the Bible. That is what makes us unique as a people," Yerach Tucker, a 30-year-old spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox community, said proudly as he guided a visitor through the Mir Yeshiva. "It is the essence of our lives."
But the vast majority of Israelis, who risk their lives and put their careers on hold while serving in the military, see this system as the essence of everything that is wrong with their country.
This resentment has fueled a broader high-decibel culture war. In recent months, secular activists have rebelled against what they consider growing religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox, such as attempts to enforce gender segregation on buses and public places, and a religious backlash by ultra-Orthodox who feel unfairly persecuted.
"It is something so ethical, so basic, that we have all grown up upon: service, giving to the state. Everyone here has to give something to society because we are one society," said Boaz Nol, a reserve officer who has set up a "sucker's tent" in Tel Aviv and is among those planning a massive protest this weekend there against the continued exemptions.
Wading into the debate, the Supreme Court earlier this year ruled the draft exemptions illegal and gave the government until Aug. 1 to figure out a new, fairer system. That is proving far more difficult than expected.
The deep divisions between religious and secular parties inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government led to the collapse of a special committee formed to draft new legislation.
Netanyahu's largest governing partner, the centrist Kadima Party, is now threatening to quit the government, just two months after joining the coalition with the goal of reforming the draft. Netanyahu has vowed to find a compromise.
A glimpse into the world of the ultra-Orthodox shows just how intractable the issue has become. The draft exemptions date back to the time of Israel's independence in 1948, when founding father David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered.
As ultra-Orthodox parties became power brokers, the numbers mounted. Ultra-Orthodox officials now estimate there are about 100,000 full-time Torah learners of draft age.
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