JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli lawmakers passed a contentious law on Wednesday meant to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military, culminating a reform drive that generated mass protests by the religious community in Israel and beyond.
The issue of conscription of the ultra-Orthodox is at the heart of a cultural war in Israel. The matter featured prominently in elections last year that led to the establishment of the center-right government, which has pushed for the new legislation.
Wednesday's vote passed 67-1 in the 120-member Knesset. Opposition lawmakers — all 52 of them — were absent, boycotting the vote to protest what they say are strong-arm tactics by the ruling coalition to push through a series of laws in parliament this week.
"The change begins tomorrow morning and it is expected to transform the face of Israeli society unrecognizably," said Yaakov Peri, from the Yesh Atid party, which has led the drive for draft reforms.
Since Israel's founding in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens, have largely been allowed to avoid military service in order to pursue religious studies. In contrast, most other Jewish men perform three years of compulsory service.
The stark difference in the society continues well into adulthood. Older religious men often don't work and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.
The ultra-Orthodox insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage. But the exemptions have enraged secular and modern Orthodox Israelis who say the ultra-Orthodox are not doing their fair share.
Proponents of the law say enlisting the ultra-Orthodox into the military will lead to their further integration into the workforce.
Israel's central bank chief and international bodies, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, have warned that high unemployment in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors threatens Israel's economic future.
The law has also pitted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party against its traditional allies, the ultra-Orthodox parties, who were left out of the current coalition largely because of the draft reforms.
In a sign of their dismay, a number of Orthodox lawmakers stormed out during a speech by Netanyahu at the parliament Wednesday, ahead of an address by visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron. The lawmakers returned to the chamber after Netanyahu finished speaking in time for Cameron's speech.
Under the law, the army would be required to draft an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews each year, with the goal of enlisting 5,200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers — roughly 60 percent of those of draft age — by mid-2017. Israel would grant financial incentives to religious seminaries that send their students to the army.
If the ultra-Orthodox community does not meet that quota by then, the law calls for mandatory service for ultra-Orthodox Jews and criminal sanctions for draft-dodgers.
If it does meet the targets, the government would be obliged to set higher ones for the following three years, said Inna Dolzhansky, spokeswoman for Yesh Atid lawmaker Ofer Shelah.
The legislation has sparked large demonstrations by the ultra-Orthodox, including a rally last week in Jerusalem that drew hundreds of thousands of people. Early this week, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York protested against the legislation.
But some secular groups have also complained, both because it will take three years for the law to fully go into effect and because it falls short of the near-universal conscription required of other Israeli men.
"The law as it is written today will not lessen inequality. It will only heighten it," said, Zohara Tzoor, from the Forum to Share the Burden, one of two groups that appealed Wednesday to Israel's Supreme Court to overturn the law. Tzoor said the law has loopholes that allow the ultra-Orthodox to bypass or delay active military duty.
The law's passage is not the final word, political scientist Avraham Diskin said. The Supreme Court could challenge the law, as it did with the previous military service law, and lawmakers could also present amendments to alter the law in its current form.
The draft issue is part of a broader debate about the role of religion in Israel. With poverty and unemployment high in the religious sector, voices have emerged criticizing the ultra-Orthodox education system, which minimizes studies of subjects like math and English in favor of religion.
The ultra-Orthodox have also come under fire for attempting at times to impose their conservative values, such as separation of men and women, on the broader population. Ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authorities also hold a monopoly over rituals like weddings and burials.
Coalition members praised the law, but emphasized the need for unity after the vote.
Yitzhak Vaknin, a lawmaker with the opposition Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party, said he opposed the law because of the criminal sanctions.
"We understand there is a need to participate in things, but there is also a great duty of the people of Israel to study Torah," he said.