RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene, good morning. This week, the Israeli government proposed a law requiring most ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to serve in the military. Most Israelis are drafted for two or three years. But since Israel's founding, the ultra-Orthodox have been exempt if they devote their lives to religious study.
Still, some enlist anyway, and the military hopes their experience can be a model for thousands more. From Jerusalem, here's NPR's Emily Harris.
(SOUNDBITE OF GATE DOORS OPENING)
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The entrance gate has a big squeak, but the Israeli military outpost it opens onto is tiny. Right next door to a West Bank settlement, the platoon stationed here is made up entirely of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Lt. Yoel Bagad broke strict community norms to get here.
LT. YOEL BAGDAD: (Through translator) When I was 16 years old, I quit Torah studies. It was too hard for me to study from 7 in the morning to 11 at night.
HARRIS: Once he gave up religious study, Israeli law required he serve in the military. That was fine with Bagdad, but his family needed explanations.
BAGDAD: (Through translator) In ultra-Orthodox society, military service is generally not accepted. But I explained to my parents that I'm going to a religious unit. I am able to live a completely religious life here.
(SOUNDBITE OF GROUP PRAYER CHANTS)
HARRIS: Troops in this unit pray three times daily. Other religious needs are also accommodated. Women aren't generally allowed here, and soldiers who wear beards or curled sidelocks can keep them.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of Israel's population, and it's a fast-growing community. Military personnel planner Lt. Col. Amir Badmani says it's important to get them into the army.
LT. COL. AMIR BADMANI: (Through translator) First of all, because the Israeli military is short on manpower and also, the military has been a melting pot for Israeli society. So the military and the state see it as very important to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army.
HARRIS: Not just into the army but into the economy. Only about 40 percent of ultra-Orthodox men are employed now. Soldiers get skills that can help them get jobs. But ultra-Orthodox leader Yitzhak Pindrus says you can't legislate cultural change.
YITZHAK PINDRUS: There's no way that they're going to change the culture of life - or our style of life, or our belief - by any rules or by any law passing in the Knesset.
HARRIS: He says the debate about military service masks a deeper question: What role do ultra-Orthodox Jews - called Haredi here - have in contemporary Israel?
PINDRUS: I personally, as a Haredi boy, served in the army. OK? My father served in the army. I mean, that's not the deal right now. The issue right now is the Haredi community with their culture and style of life, legitimate or not.
HARRIS: Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox in Israel, and in New York and Europe, have demonstrated against forced military service. Some ultra-Orthodox soldiers have been assaulted when they return to their old neighborhoods. Haim Zicherman, a scholar with the Israel Democracy Institute, asks what will happen if people refuse to be drafted?
HAIM ZICHERMAN: You going to come with tanks to take everybody to jail? You can send one, one person to jail. You can't send thousand people to jail.
HARRIS: Other Israeli minorities, like the Druze and Bedouin, have their own military units. The army counts these as success stories. But Hertzi Halevi, a brigadier general commanding a division that includes a Druze battalion, says he'd like to see real integration over time.
BRIG. GEN. HERTZI HALEVI: It will be better to be together in every place, to have the ultra-Orthodox and the Druze and the Bedouins not in a separate company or battalion or brigade. But we have to move to that direction gradually, slowly.
HARRIS: The draft law anticipates a slow transition. Even if it passes this summer, it wouldn't fully kick in before 2017.
Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.