JERUSALEM – A court order to stop Israel's longtime practice of exempting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from military service has become a central issue in upcoming elections and could reshape the face of the society. If they are forced to serve, their rabbis fear, they could also enter the work force and come under the influence of the secular world.
That matters little to Israel's secular majority, chafing under the twin burdens of compulsory military service and financing the state subsidies and stipends that maintain the ultra-Orthodox in their insular life style.
Currently, more than 60,000 ultra-Orthodox men of military age have exemptions.
"Everyone needs to serve," Israel's newest political star, former TV personality Yair Lapid, said this week at the launch of his new political party. "There is no anti-ultra-Orthodox message here. We simply cannot fund you any longer and cannot be the only ones who serve the country."
Army service for all has been a central aspect of Israeli society since the nation was founded in 1948, regarded as a social obligation and an integral part of Israeli citizenship.
Unlike modern Orthodox Jews, who live, work and serve in the military alongside secular Israelis, the ultra-Orthodox wall themselves off from the rest of Israeli society. The community, whose men are recognizable by their beards and dark suits, make up about 13 percent of Israel's 5.9 million Jews.
Many rabbis reject the idea of military service for their followers, arguing that the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle is threatened by exposure to the outside world.
According to military data, fewer than 1,300 were drafted in the past year.
Conscription in Israel is compulsory, with men over 18 serving three years in the military and women two. Those who cannot or do not want to serve can do community service in schools, hospitals and other public institutions.
The widespread exemptions from military service have established a pattern that carries beyond military age: In 2011, 45 percent of ultra-Orthodox men did not work, instead continuing their religious studies while relying on state handouts. The system has led to deep poverty in the ultra-Orthodox sector.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, among others, has warned that the community's high jobless rate is a threat to economic growth. Objections to the state subsidies given to the ultra-Orthodox helped fuel mass protests last summer against the government's economic policies.
The draft privileges date back six decades, when Israel's founders granted exemptions to 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators, and entire Jewish communities were obliterated. The numbers of exemptions have steadily ballooned over the years, now reaching tens of thousands.
While there have been repeated calls over the years to end the system, ultra-Orthodox political parties have used their balance of power status in parliament to block the initiatives.
That changed in February, when the Israeli Supreme Court ordered an end to the draft exemptions by Aug. 1.
With the clock ticking, legislators have produced a stack of proposals. All would drastically reduce the number of annual exemptions for religious study to several hundred. Some would make military or community service a condition for receiving welfare allowances.
Ultra-Orthodox parties have vowed to fight any change to the status quo.
"In the worst case, seminary students will go to jail" rather than be drafted, warned ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party. "It will lead to a civil war."
Over the weekend, the political uproar over the draft came to a head when Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman hinted he would pull his fiercely secular Yisrael Beiteinu Party out of the ruling coalition if lawmakers do not support his compulsory draft bill next week.
The deadlock pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move toward calling an early election, a year ahead of schedule. An announcement is expected next week, with Sept. 4 shaping up as the likely date.
An election would put off the deadline to stop the exemptions until three months after the next parliament is sworn in. But the issue promises to stay on the agenda, said Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.
Candidates who want compulsory conscription will say, "Give us power because we're going to draft the ultra-Orthodox," Sheleg said. "The ultra-Orthodox will say, 'Give us power because we won't let them compromise our rights.'"
Absorbing the ultra-Orthodox in large numbers would be a tough task for the military, which has run a number of small programs for the ultra-Orthodox since 1999.
It could prove a boon for Israeli society if ultra-Orthodox resistance is broken down, because entry into the labor force could follow.
An ultra-Orthodox soldier who joined the military four years ago said he did so after some hesitation. Wanting to get ahead professionally, he secretly attended a conference the navy held to try to recruit ultra-Orthodox Jews, he said.
When he first joined up, some people in his ultra-Orthodox community shunned him, he said.
"But four years later, everyone sees I stayed the same," he said.
"In another 15, 20 years, we will look at (the program) as something that changed the face of Israeli society," another soldier in the program predicted, also speaking on condition of anonymity.