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Israel's war in Gaza puts pressure on Ultra-Orthodox community's military exemption

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Israel's government faces a deadline this week over a core tension in society - whether to draft the ultra-Orthodox into military service. Full-time religious students have long been exempt. But the Hamas attack that killed 1,200 Israelis last October and Israel's response have heightened calls for urgent change. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Hebrew).

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: It's evening prayer time in the city of Bnei Brak, a center of ultra-Orthodox life. Outside a religious seminary, or yeshiva, young men gather in black coats and broad-brimmed black hats. Twenty-three-year-old Shmuel Hezi says after the Hamas attack, the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, as they're called in Hebrew, did their part.

SHMUEL HEZI: (Speaking Hebrew).

LUDDEN: "We were the first responders," he says, "going in with ambulances and helping identify bodies." It's true. Many ultra-Orthodox do those jobs. But enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, what's known here as the People's Army - Hezi says, no way.

HEZI: (Speaking Hebrew).

LUDDEN: "Let's turn the tables," he says. "If the army was all religious people, would you, a secular person, send your son? No, you would not." Actually, after the attack, a couple thousand ultra-Orthodox did sign up. And polls show more Haredim support the military. But for many Israelis, it's not nearly enough. Since the Hamas attack, the IDF has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists, drafted others early and pushed for longer rotations.

RON SCHERF: The people that are serving will now have to do twice or three times more. That's crazy. It will not happen.

LUDDEN: Ron Scherf helped found Brothers and Sisters in Arms, reservists calling to end the broad ultra-Orthodox exemption. Scherf's 20-year-old son is now doing his mandatory service.

SCHERF: A minister in the government who is willing to send my son to his death and his son doing nothing - who can understand that?

LUDDEN: The exemption goes back to Israel's founding in the wake of the Holocaust, when protecting the remnant of religious scholars was considered key for a Jewish state. It only applied to some 400 people. But with their high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox are Israel's fastest-growing population. Yonahan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute says they now make up a quarter of enlistment-age men.

YONAHAN PLESNER: There are huge implications on Israeli democracy in multiple dimensions.

LUDDEN: For one thing, to get out of military service, you can't hold a job. That's a drag on the economy and a growing financial burden for everyone else. What's more, Haredi political power has grown with its population. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition needs them.

PLESNER: His entire political career, there was a sort of an overarching directive. Preserve the alliance with the ultra-Orthodox at all costs because this alliance ensures his grip over power.

LUDDEN: Netanyahu is supposed to present a military draft plan by the end of the month. If ultra-Orthodox politicians don't like it, they could bring down the government. And for their leaders, this fight is existential. The word Haredi means one who trembles before God. They reject engagement with the modern world and fear exposing young men to it will end their way of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALL THUMPING)

LUDDEN: But change is coming slowly. A soccer game played by young men in black pants and white tee shirts - it's a break between classes at this unusual yeshiva 45 minutes south of Tel Aviv. Rabbi Yonatan Reiss co-founded it seven years ago basically for people like him.

YONATAN REISS: (Speaking Hebrew).

LUDDEN: "As the Haredim grows and grows," he says, "there are a lot of young people who don't want to study the Torah all the time." But, he says, they're not prepared for other things. So here and at two other yeshivas he runs, there are classes in math, English, computer science. And all students join the military. Rabbi Reiss says the Hamas attack in October only confirmed the need for this.

REISS: (Speaking Hebrew).

LUDDEN: "The entire Israeli society knew what to do and where they had to go serve," he says. "But many ultra-Orthodox were embarrassed, wondering, what can we do"?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Laughter).

LUDDEN: Outside a classroom, one student says his parents were disappointed with his choice. But they've come around since he's doing well, studying computers. Another, 19-year-old Binyamin Savrasov, actually has older brothers who served in the army, but it was rough.

BINYAMIN SAVRASOV: Oh, some neighbors were kind of mean to us and, like, you know, throw our eggs on our car.

LUDDEN: He's confident he can keep his religion and thinks it's only right to enlist.

SAVRASOV: If it's not you, it's your brothers or your cousins or someone who's not as religious than you. So you're just being selfish.

LUDDEN: Nechumi Yaffe of Tel Aviv University is ultra-Orthodox herself and says it will be good for the community to normalize through military service. But she thinks Israelis don't understand how challenging that may be for young men who've been socially isolated with no education on human rights.

NECHUMI YAFFE: I think the Israeli society should ask itself, actually, do you want to see them in the army? You know, they want to see blood. They want to see them in uniform, shooting. I don't think it's a great idea.

LUDDEN: Maybe better, she says, to start some off as truck drivers or cooks while they learn. Another challenge - even though harsh attitudes are softening, she says people still face stigma when they return from service. Back in Bnei Brak, 36-year-old Mordechai Porat is one of the ultra-Orthodox who volunteered for duty after the October attack.

MORDECHAI PORAT: (Speaking Hebrew).

LUDDEN: "I felt like a lion in a cage," he says. "I had to do something." He's a social worker, and since November, has been providing therapy at a nearby military base. Porat's father told him to never wear his green fatigues in the city. So on this evening, as always, he changed into a black jacket before leaving the base. He reaches under his shirt collar to show the hidden dog tag around his neck. But even with this low profile, he says he's paid a price.

PORAT: (Speaking Hebrew).

LUDDEN: "My son has still not been accepted into the community school," he says. Porat thinks most ultra-Orthodox will never join the military but more will consider it over time.

PORAT: (Speaking Hebrew).

LUDDEN: "Israelis need to be patient a while longer," he says. "If people are forced into it, they'll just push back." Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Bnei Brak, Israel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN YOUNGE SONG, "STEP BEYOND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jennifer Ludden
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.