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40 Ultra-Orthodox Jews Arrested In Protest Over Israeli Conscription Laws

Demonstrations broke out after four Haredi seminary students were arrested for failing to report to a military induction center to enlist.

by Harriet Salem
Feb 2 2015, 10:08pm

Photo by Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Israeli police arrested some 40 Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews in Ashdod, Israel Monday after several hundred religious men protested against the detention of four yeshiva students who failed to report to Israeli Defense Force (IDF) draft offices. One police officer was lightly wounded during the event.

Video of the incident in Ashdod shows water cannons being blasted into a line of demonstrators who blocked traffic by sitting down on the road. At least eight more people were arrested during concurrent protests in Jerusalem, El'ad and Hadera.

The four students who are currently in jail for failing to attend preliminary enlistment processing were reportedly following the instruction of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who is widely seen as a leading Haredi rabbi and champion of the protests against conscription of young men from the ultra-Orthodox community.

According to local media reports, the Haredi protesters Monday did not have an official "permit." Israeli police spokeswoman Luba Sarmri said that law enforcement officials would allow only "legitimate, protests authorized by law, unlike this demonstration."

"The police will continue to strictly enforce the law against those who act violently and disrupt the public order," she added.

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While military service is compulsory for most Israelis — starting from age 18 and lasting either two years for women or three years for men — Haredi yeshiva students have been largely excluded from military service on religious grounds, as the community believes the role of Jewish men is to study the Torah.

A new conscription law passed last March is set to change that automatic exemption for the Haredi community. Under the controversial legislation, the number of ultra-Orthodox men conscripted to the IDF will gradually increase each year until 2017. So far, thousands of Haredi have been summonsed to report to army induction centers to either enlist or opt for the full military service exemption — an option open to those who were aged 18 and over on the day the law passed.

The legislation also means young religious draft dodgers could be charged with a criminal offense with punishments, including jail time.

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The outrage that followed the passing on the bill sparked mass protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets. Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders have denounced the measure as tantamount to imprisoning people for their faith.

Despite the penalties, less than 40 percent of young Haredi men turned up to the military induction centers when summoned.

The army exemption for the religious group was originally granted during the founding of the state in 1948 when the ultra-Orthodox made up only a small segment of society. But the growing community now numbers around 10 percent of Israel's population of 8 million, and is projected to increase to some 25 percent of the population within 25 years.

Politicians representing the ultra-Orthodox community in the Knesset have roundly condemned the law. Yaakov Litzman, a member of parliament for the United Torah Judaism party described the move as a "continuation of the ongoing rule of annihilation, whose aim is to destroy Torah study in Israel."

But defenders of the extension of conscription to include young men from the religious community argue it is a matter of equality. "Three years from now, 70 percent of the Haredim will have enlisted, which is the national average for all Israeli citizens," Israel's finance minister Yair Lapid, a supporter of the bill, said after it passed. "We don't want the Haredim to feel like they are hated."

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Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem