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About 30 Israeli far-left activists gathered in the small gravel courtyard in front of the entrance of the Yaakov Dori Military Base on April 27. This is where many Israeli teenagers take their first steps as soldiers in the Israeli Defense Force. Passersby pelted water bottles at the protesters, because they held up signs and chanted in support of Uriel Ferera, a 19-year-old Israeli who refused to enlist on moral grounds.
Military service is mandatory in Israel, and conscientious objection is illegal. Later that day, authorities arrested Ferera for declaring his refusal and sent him to jail. Ferera, however, is unlike your average Israeli conscientious objector. He belongs to the one group of people in Israeli society (apart from Arab Israelis) that has been exempt from military conscription—the Haredim, better known as ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Since Israel’s early days, the nation has let ultra-Orthodox Jews evade the draft. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, allowed Yeshiva students to be exempt from mandatory service. Over the course of the state's history, Orthodox teenagers have taken advantage of this precedent, to the point where today only a tiny percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jews enlist in the army. As a Haredi of military age, Ferera could have chosen the easy way out. Instead he chose to take the route that lands you in prison.
“I refuse to enlist in the army for reasons of conscience,” Ferera said in a video statement he recently posted on YouTube. “I cannot participate in anti-democratic activity such as the military occupation of Palestinian lands and lack of civil equality between us and Palestinians under Israeli rule.”
When Ferera arrived at the courtyard of the military base in late April, the protesters erupted in cheers. Ferera seemed collected but visibly touched by the support from people most Israelis would see as his antithesis. “With your support I'm going to prison with my head held high,” he told them. He went from one protestor to the next, giving each a warm hug.
Ferera knows that due to his outward appearance—a black yarmulke, tzitzit (knotted fringes worn by religious Jews), and payot (long curly sideburns worn by Orthodox Jews)—many Israelis would label him as a lazy draft evader. For many years in Israel, Haredi Jews have received widespread criticism for not “sharing the burden” of army service. They have been seen as parasites that take advantage of the government's financial aid without contributing to Israeli society.
Ferera refused to be seen as a leech. “I'm not lazy,” he said at the protest. “I wanted to do three years of National Service [voluntary community service for those exempt from the army]. I wanted to contribute to society in my own way, but you [the army] said no. Now it is the Israeli taxpayers who will have to pay the cost of keeping me locked up.”
According to a YouTube video and his Facebook, Ferera spent 20 days in prison after his arrest and returned home this weekend. No one knows exactly how much jail time he faces in the future. Omar Saad, a young Druze musician, has been locked up for over 140 days after he refused to enlist. (Unlike most Arabs, the Druze population must join the IDF.) Saad's father was present at the protest in support of Ferera, and assured him that Saad will be his friend and will support him for the duration of his sentence. Earlier this month, Saad was hospitalized for a life-threatening liver infection that the military jail officers failed to address for several days.
Ferera's refusal comes at a time when the topic of recruitment of Haredim is at a major crossroads. In 2012, Israel's High Court ruled that the law that allowed Yeshiva students to postpone their army service indefinitely was unconstitutional, and in February 2014, the High Court issued an order that prohibits the government from giving financial aid to Yeshiva students who evade the armed forces.
These developments have caused an unprecedented uproar in ultra-Orthodox communities across Israel and the world. In early March, tens of thousands of people protested the government's decision in New York.
Haredi Jews essentially live in a separate society. If Haredi youngsters enlist, they will face very tough religious, social, and personal dilemmas. At this time, it's unclear whether young ultra-Orthodox Jews will join the army or follow Ferera’s path.