The Knesset on Wednesday passed a landmark national service bill requiring Jewish seminary students to serve in the army, an issue that has been debated for years and divides secular and religious Israelis.
The bill ends an exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox students in yeshivot, or Jewish seminaries, in place since Israel’s founding in 1948. The legislation will be phased in gradually by 2017, offering blanket exemptions from the draft for only 1,800 top Torah scholars and imposing criminal penalties for draft-dodgers.
Sixty-seven members of the 120-seat Knesset voted in favour of the bill and one against. Opposition parties, including two representing the haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, boycotted the voting.
The two parties also stayed off the floor later on Wednesday during an address by Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister, as he introduced UK Prime Minister David Cameron, returning to their seats only after Mr Netanyahu had stopped speaking.
The bill’s approval marks a hard-fought political victory for Mr Netanyahu’s junior coalition partners, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, who promised their supporters they would enforce “equal sharing of the burden” among the ultra-Orthodox in the army and the workforce after gaining election to the Knesset in January 2013.
“This bill will allow hundreds of thousands of haredim – ultra-Orthodox men – to join the Israeli workforce and join the Israeli national service, the military,” Naftali Bennett, economy minister and head of the rightwing nationalist Jewish Home said in a video address. “We are making history today.”
However, Moshe Gafni, a member of parliament with the United Torah Judaism religious party, said the vote marked a “black day” for Israel, and that the country had “lost the right to be called a Jewish and democratic state”.
Hundreds of thousands of the ultra-Orthodox rallied in Jerusalem earlier this month to protest against the bill, bringing traffic in the city to a standstill for hours.
Although religious parties were kingmakers in most of Israel’s coalition governments in recent years, Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet, formed a year ago, was the first to exclude them because of a pact between Yesh Atid and Jewish Home, who joined forces to keep them out.
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis make up about 10 per cent of the country’s 8m population and have historically enjoyed generous welfare benefits because of their privileged political position.
However, Israel’s government is trying to integrate them more closely into Israeli society and the economy, along with minority Arabs.
Economists and policy makers, including Bank of Israel Governor Karnit Flug, have warned that as a group the haredim could slow Israel’s economic growth in future years because of widespread poverty, higher-than-average birth rates, poor education, and low participation in the workforce.
Get alerts on Israel when a new story is published