For Haredi Jews exempt from military service, volunteering can mean a family break-up
Life in one of Israels ultra-Orthodox military units does not proceed according to the usual army schedule. The morning starts with prayers just before dawn. Meals in the barracks are prepared under the strictest kosher requirements. Training is halted twice more during the day for prayers; once again for a rabbi to teach soldiers about religious texts. Unlike the rest of the Israel Defense Forces, there are no women on duty.
Many of the units deeply observant members were raised to be rabbis, which is seen as the highest calling and duty. But as Daniel Rosenberg, an ultra-Orthodox who operated a heavy machine-gun, explained, sometimes a kid doesnt want to be a rabbi; he wants to be a fighter.
These men, who number just a few thousand, are at the centre of a fierce debate in Israel that has driven rifts through society, peaking earlier this year when political differences over the issue shattered attempts to form a government. The unresolved dispute now hangs over Tuesdays election.
Israel has mandatory army service but has always made an exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as Haredi, who are allowed to continue full-time Torah study.
During the past two decades a small but growing number of Haredi have volunteered to join the military, often going against their parents wishes, and in many cases being rejected by their families.
You need to have a lot of strength and power to detach from your familys beliefs and go do something extremely different, said Rosenberg, 21, who recently ended his time as a Haredi paratrooper. They have no emotional help, he said. And then, when it comes to the field, theyre beasts Those kids are on their own, and that gives them a lot of strength, ironically.
The exemption policy dates back to just after the countrys founding, when 400 yeshiva students were permitted to avoid conscription.. With Haredi populations increasing to about 12% of the countrys nine million citizens, tens of thousands now avoid the military and live on government stipends.
For Avigdor Lieberman, a secular former defence minister, the issue was a deal-breaker. In May he refused to join a coalition government with ultra-Orthodox parties unless Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to force the Haredi into the army. The stalemate led to a second election being called.
It is not only in Israeli society that Haredi soldiers are controversial. The first ultra-Orthodox battalion, Netzah Yehuda, established in 1999, mainly operates in the occupied West Bank and has been embroiled in a series of abuse allegations over the years against Palestinians including violent beatings of handcuffed detainees and even claims of electrocuting prisoners.
In March an Israeli military court convicted four soldiers from the brigade for aggravated abuse after they filmed themselves laughing and hitting two arrested Palestinians. Were having a party here, one is filmed saying before slapping a blindfolded man.
In Israel, the Haredi call-up issue could paralyse the next attempt at government-building. At the very least, it has added vitriol into politics. Netanyahus main rival, Benny Gantz, has hinted that he might also snub powerful religious politicians if elected.