JERUSALEM -- In a step that could intensify a major rift among Israelis, the defense minister on Tuesday ordered the army to prepare for a universal draft of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
Many in the insular and rapidly growing community say they would rather go to jail than comply with an end to the decades-long draft exemptions that have caused increasing outrage in the country.
Ehud Barak gave defense officials a month to craft a plan to put the new draft procedure into practice, trying to buy time in a last-ditch effort to find an agreed solution. His order came just hours before the expiration of a law that has granted tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews exemptions from military duty.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last night that the army would begin widening its list of recruits immediately. "Starting tomorrow, there's a new law about equal service. The Israeli military will decide whom to draft, how many to draft -- and it will draft," Netanyahu pledged.
Ultra-Orthodox leader Meir Porush, a former lawmaker, said drafting his people would unleash a "civil war." He said the military neither needed nor wanted to be flooded with devoutly religious conscripts.
"The Israeli military is not ready, won't be ready and doesn't want to be ready" to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews, Porush said. Privately, some defense officials agreed.
What began 60 years ago as exemptions for a few hundred top rabbinical students to symbolically rebuild the great Jewish houses of learning obliterated in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II has mushroomed -- partly due to a high birthrate -- into get-out-of-the-army cards for 60,000 able-bodied Israeli adult men. Most other Jews are drafted into the military at 18, with men serving three years and then decades of yearly reserve duty, and women serving about two years.
The disparity has long grated on the nerves of Israel's secular and modern Orthodox Jewish majority, who have to delay university studies and careers during their service. Meanwhile ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 percent of Israel's population, continue their nonstop study of religious tomes, usually to the exclusion of modern subjects like science and foreign languages.
Secular Israelis tend to reject the argument by the ultra-Orthodox that their devotion to Judaism amounts to another type of defense of the country.
The hot dispute over deeply held values reflects the central role of the army in Israeli cultural life. Over the years, the army has been the great melting pot for a country made up largely of immigrants from more than 100 countries, socializing people into the fabric of society, providing language instruction and even remedial high school classes for underprivileged youth, taking on a role far beyond that of military forces in other nations.