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In Israel, time change unleashes culture clash

JOSEF FEDERMAN

Published: Saturday, Sept. 22 2012 1:21 p.m. MDT

With this power, rabbinical authorities control the rules for marriages, divorces and burials, and ultra-Orthodox males have long received exemptions from compulsory military service in order to pursue religious studies.

Ultra-Orthodox men often continue their studies well into adulthood, living off welfare subsidies as their secular counterparts work and pay taxes.

The draft exemptions and study subsidies have become a central issue in Israeli politics. Early this year, the Supreme Court ruled the exemptions illegal and ordered the government to change the law.

But attempts in parliament to reform the nation's draft law deadlocked, causing one of Netanyahu's coalition partners to quit, and the government missed a deadline to draw up new legislation. With religious leaders saying they will resist any change to the old arrangement, Defense Minister Ehud Barak is currently struggling to figure out a new draft system.

Adding to the tensions, extremist sects within the ultra-Orthodox community have come under fire in recent months for attempts to ban the mixing of sexes on buses, sidewalks and other public spaces. In Jerusalem, advertisements depicting women have been removed from billboards and buses because of fears that extremists will vandalize them.

These attempts at coercion have fueled a brewing cultural clash between two Israels. On one hand, the country continues to be a high-tech powerhouse with liberal values that have turned Tel Aviv into a gay mecca. On the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox, with their high birthrates, have grown increasingly outspoken and assertive.

With Netanyahu expected to call early parliamentary elections in the coming months, the country's opposition is likely to use the controversies over the draft and religious coercion against him.

"Israel is proving once again that it is living in the dark," said Ronit Tirosh, a lawmaker from the opposition Kadima Party.

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