Nahal Haredi soldier
An armed Israeli soldier waering a prayer shawl and tefillin. Photo by Alex Levac
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The ultra-Orthodox would never applaud any plan for drafting their young men into the army. Their leaders pine for the days when the Tal Law (exempting yeshiva students from military service) held sway, even though they were no more enthusiastic about it when it was passed in 2002 than they were about the situation last week.

In many ways, the bill presented by Yesh Atid MK Jacob Perry, chairman of a special committee, might as well have been a recipe for an army meal or commentary on a Talmudic text. As long as the legislation relates to military service, the ultra-Orthodox are opposed.

But there's a stark difference between 2002 and 2013 that should concern anyone seeking to equalize the burden by getting the ultra-Orthodox into the army and labor force. Even before a word was penned for Perry's bill, the ultra-Orthodox, from rabbinical leaders and politicians on down, believed that a culture war was under way.

The most disturbing element of this war is happening on the streets. Two ultra-Orthodox soldiers walking near Kikar Hashabat in Jerusalem were attacked and beaten, and others have been thrown out of synagogues in Bnei Brak. Angry demonstrations outside the conscription center in Jerusalem ended with stones, broken glass and injuries.

An ultra-Orthodox politician told a Haredi radio station that an Israel Defense Forces uniform is like a garbageman's - it should be removed before a soldier returns to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. For fear of disturbances, the IDF put off for a week an induction ceremony for Haredi Nahal soldiers on Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill. Worst of all, the ultra-Orthodox leaders are silent.

For years many professionals, whether ultra-Orthodox or not, have been working on ideas to build trust between the Haredim and the army units where Haredim serve. As a result, several thousand youths have enlisted in the IDF, joining ultra-Orthodox units in various branches of the army.

One might question whether these are bona fide military units, but they're prestigious and definitely ultra-Orthodox. Many young men in the community want to join up. Shahar soldiers can be seen walking in their neighborhoods in uniform. This is a tiny but steady trickle, made possible by senior rabbis ruling on individual cases. These rabbis are now silent.

The soldiers knew they wouldn't be embraced by their community. But they didn't expect to be physically attacked, abused by the ultra-Orthodox press and abandoned by their leaders. Until now there had been very few incidents in the streets.

All this work appears to be wasted, even before examining the bill to be brought before the cabinet, if that ever happens. People working on ideas for drafting the ultra-Orthodox say the damage done over the last few weeks has been immense. History has been turned back years, and it's hard to see how the Perry committee can contribute anything.

It all happened quickly, within two months after the forming of the new government that left out the ultra-Orthodox parties. Before that came a longer period that started with the High Court of Justice's striking down of the Tal Law and the Plesner committee's attempts to draft the Haredim. It culminated in the election campaign that signaled the exclusion of that community.

Throughout this period, the ultra-Orthodox press was filled with cries denouncing "decrees leading to abandonment of our religion." These only exacerbated the sense of a culture war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is viewed as a monster in places like the Haredi press. Secular politicians, whether before the vote or while imposing economic measures on an entire community, denounce the ultra-Orthodox. They don't notice that they're strengthening radical elements in that camp, squandering any chance for a more equitable sharing of the burden.