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Will new government policies regarding religion and state drive a wedge in Israeli society?

“Levels of alienation and resentment might rise," IDI President Plesner says regarding changes to standards of military service

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni attends a vote in the Knesset in Jerusalem, Dec. 15, 2022. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

If the coalition agreements are any indication, the new government under Benjamin Netanyahu is going to take the country “in a completely new trajectory” and could potentially drive a wedge between segments of Israeli society, said one legal expert. 

In a briefing with journalists on Wednesday, Israel Democracy Institute President Yohanan Plesner said the new coalition members are calling for changes that can impact the judicial and constitutional composition of the government; policies of religion vs. state; and the management of ongoing policy in the West Bank.

One example Plesner cited is an agreement with one of the parties calling for elevating the study of Torah at a yeshiva to the same level as military service, which is mandatory for all Israelis at the age of 18.

“As someone who has been following and influencing those policies for almost 20 years, I can say we are about to experience a dramatic shift,” Plesner said.

Plesner said that although not much will change in reality – the ultra-Orthodox get exempted anyway – the stipulation elevates at a constitutional level the study of Torah to the same norm as serving in the military.

That is evidenced, he said, by the significant increase in government subsidies earmarked for yeshiva studies. The agreement will also remove limitations to studying which could create a stronger incentive to stay there, while also creating a disincentive to join the workforce.

This will "elevate those who go to yeshiva rather than to the military to a constitutional norm."

The agreement essentially legislates the tension between Israelis who serve in the army versus the ultra-Orthodox Israelis who generally forgo the military in order to study at a yeshiva.

These exemptions, coupled with the fact that students receive a stipend from the government, has long stirred resentment among Israelis who do serve in the military – some paying with their lives – and feel that responsibility for the nation's security is disproportionately placed upon them.

“Levels of alienation and resentment might rise, not because the de facto situation will change – because the ultra-Orthodox serve very little," but once this is legislated, Plesner continued, "and the Knesset will use its role as a constitutional assembly to elevate Torah at the expense of serving in the military, that might put at serious risk this norm of service and increase levels of aggravation."

United Torah Judaism Knesset Member Moshe Gafni – whose party has a powerful seat at the table now – recently suggested that half the country should serve in the army while the other half studies Torah.

“When there were bloody wars during the reign of King David, a prophet came to him and said that half the people will study Torah and half will serve in the army, and then they'll switch,” Gafni said.

Nicole Jansezian is the news editor for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS

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