Jerusalem protest
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men attend a mass prayer in JerusalemREUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel's Knesset has approved a controversial law that drafts ultra-Orthodox Jews into the army abolishing a 65-year exemption for haredim.

The new legislation, approved by 67 MKs and boycotted by opposition ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, aims at incorporating the yeshiva (seminary) students by 2017. It exempts 1,800 "standout students" each year and includes criminal penalties for any draft-evading haredi students – including prison sentences.

Haredim, which in Hebrew means "those who tremble before God", have been exempt from conscription since the foundation of Israel, causing anger and resentment in a country where most Jewish men and women have to serve in the military when they turn 18.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10% of Israel's eight million population. Most of the men are unemployed and live off state benefits

MK Ayelet Shaked, from the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said that "this is a historic, important bill".

"For 65 years there was an exemption for all yeshiva students and the change the coalition made is proportionate and gradual and correct," she said.

However, many ultra-Orthodox legislators boycotted the parliamentary session and voiced their anger at the government.

"This is a black day for the state and the government, ultra-Orthodox lawmaker Moshe Gafni, was quoted as saying on the Kikar Hashabat website. "The state of Israel has lost the right to call itself a Jewish and democratic state."

The historic Tal Law, which exempted ultra-Orthodox men from the national service, was declared unconstitutional in July 2012.

Earlier in February, thousands of haredim rallied across Israel in protest against the law.

The leader of the Jerusalem protest, David Zicherman, urged the ultra-Orthodox to start a civil disobedience movement and stop paying taxes.

"You are pushing us into a corner," he said of the government. "We will start a war with the State of Israel, and it will burn like wildfire. We, Holocaust survivors, are now encountering a spiritual Holocaust."

"They will fail in their attempt to lead us to annihilation," he warned. "We shall not compromise nor negotiate."

Source: Reuters