by Keren Setton
JERUSALEM, March 8 (Xinhua) -- Israel's mandatory military service and the almost routine exemption granted to ultra-orthodox or Haredi Jews is one of Israeli society's most contentious issues.
People have been protesting in the streets both in favor and against it, and demonstrations took a violent turn with tens of Haredi Jews detained after protesting against mandatory military duty.
The moderate changes occurring in recent years may potentially lead Israeli society toward a major shift in coming years.
While military service in Israel is mandatory for both genders once they reach the age of 18, ultra-orthodox or Haredi Jews have been exempt from this duty for years.
Males who reach the age of 18 must prove they are engaged in full-time religious studies whereas females are routinely exempt.
The male military duty exemption was a blanket one, a simple procedure, granted during a time when the population was a much smaller one.
However, frustration in secular Israeli society increased as they demanded that Haredi Jews share the responsibility of military service.
In the past, some Israeli political parties employed the contentious issue in their political campaigns.
Assimilating religious Jews into Israeli society often increased tensions in the small country.
These differences tend to boil over every now and again as in recent weeks in the country's religious areas.
Several laws attempting to tackle the issue and legalize the exemption or find a solution which satisfies both sides were passed yet subsequently canceled in Israel's parliament with no permanent solution to date.
A few days ago, thousands of religious protesters took to the streets and participated in a violent demonstration opposing the arrest of a Haredi Jew who did not show up for enlistment, after which tens of religious protesters were detained.
If a secular Jew evades military service - he may be subjected to severe punishment which includes a prison sentence.
However, a religious Jew evading military service will most likely not be jailed, yet, if that changes, demonstrations like last week's are common.
Change in the ultra-orthodox society is the driving catalyst behind trickling numbers of ultra-orthodox Jews enlisting in the Israeli army.
Currently, over 6,500 Haredi soldiers have enlisted into an army consisting of over 180,000 personnel.
This gradual shift is accompanied with heightened fear amongst Haredi Jews.
"The Haredi population...is essentially isolationist and afraid of exposure. Those who enlist in the army and fit in the army, are eventually integrated into society," explains Aharon Wiesner, a journalist specializing in public religious issues.
Approximately 800,000 Orthodox Jews live in Israel, or 10 percent of Israel's population.
With a high birth rate of an average of six children per family, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, Orthodox Jews are the fastest growing population in the small country.
The threat of change to their way of life is not the only reason behind their wariness of army service, but rather their belief that studying the Torah, the main Judaic reference text, is more valuable.
"The Haredi society is not ideological regarding Zionism and the state of Israel. Their ideology is the bible. For them, the state of Israel is not restitutive," says Wiesner.
One cannot become a soldier and continue one's Torah studies.
The secular Israeli army includes both genders who are in constant interaction, with no time allotted for prayer.
In addition, the food does not follow a strictly Jewish Kosher dietary decree, neither is the holy Sabbath day rigorously observed.
A religious Jew will face several challenges in an attempt to maintain his lifestyle.
It is equally challenging for the army as it attempts to accommodate its religious recruits.
Lt. Col. Zahi Revivo, a senior official in Israel's Defense Forces (IDF) recruitment unit, oversees the integration of ultra-orthodox soldiers into the army.
He says the army goes to great lengths to provide them with 'everything' they need.
Yet, he acknowledges there have been some turbulent times.
"I believe clashes exist all the time. Small clashes are dealt with by the field commander and oftentimes military laws dominate," says Revivo.
This is the current economic reality which even the isolationist ultra-orthodox religious population cannot ignore.
The Haredi population is poor, with almost half the families living below the poverty line.
With large families to support, both parents seek employment in the workforce.
Steadily, increasing numbers of religious women are employed outside the home, resulting in fathers playing a greater role in raising their children as well as carrying out domestic chores.
In most cases, one needs to have completed the mandatory military service in order to be employed in Israel.
Wiesner says the gradual Haredi Jews' participation in the army is a means to an end.
"They call it a 'win-win' strategy, deemed beneficial for both sides. They do not value the army but are attempting to make the best of the situation by taking care of their interests."
In the army, they learn a profession and use that knowledge to get employed in the civilian workforce.
Lt. Col. Revivo offers a different perspective however.
"The army is society's mirror so we want everybody in the IDF with a capacity to contribute to the Israeli society. If we're bringing him into the army, he will become a better citizen. So we look at it differently. We want everybody to join the army. Perhaps even children will be included in the IDF," says Revivo.
He may be right, as clearly, the ultra-orthodox community is undergoing major changes the outcome of which will manifest years from now.
However, males who currently choose to enlist in the army must pay a price.
"Finding a wife is problematic. He will be unpopular and his children will not be accepted into leading institutions. Plus, his parents will be ashamed and so on," Wiesner elaborated.
There have been times where religious soldiers returning home on leave were attacked by religious civilians.
As gender roles within the ultra-orthodox population evolve and poverty becomes unbearable, reality will dissolve archaic traditions.
In the long run, this will significantly impact the Israeli military and society as a whole.