Bitter Knesset Debate over Bill Exempting Religious Women from Draft

The Knesset was engaged in a bitter day-long debate today over a government-sponsored bill that would exempt young women from military service simply on their own statement that they are religiously observant. As of late this evening, no vote had been taken on motions of no-confidence in the government entered by opposition factions.

The coalition was split over the original bill but united in support of a last minute amendment that would require a young woman seeking exemption from the draft to state that she observed the Sabbath, studied at a religious school and observed kashrut both in and out of her home.

The bill was one of the concessions made by Premier Menachem Begin to the Aguda Israel as the price of its support for his coalition. The Aguda has threatened to abandon the coalition if the measure is defeated or changed in any way. Its Council of Sages, whose word is low to members of the ultra-Orthodox faction, were deliberating at Bnei Brak today over whether the proposed amendment was acceptable.

The original measure passed its first reading in the Knesset at a recent session from which many MKs were absent. It aroused a storm of protest among coalition as well as opposition MKs and from the public at large. Last weekend, Jerusalem and Ramat Gan 12th graders who will be subject to the draft upon graduation, began circulating petitions to all high schools in the country demanding that the government drop the bill.

The students were backed by faculty members and headmasters who consider it scandalous that all but observant women must serve in the military. Adult women’s groups such as the Pioneer Women, also voiced opposition. They fear that the bill would greatly decrease the number of young women drafted and, as a consequence, the military age for women will be extended to 38.

MK Shulamit Aloni, of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), said last week that she knew of 600 young women about to be drafted who plan to declare themselves religious even though they are not. Religious women have always been excused from military service. But they had to pass close scrutiny by a screening panel which examined them for religious knowledge to make sure that their claim to be Orthodox was bona fide. The Aguda bill would eliminate the screening.

The Aguda also opposes suggestions by some members of the National Religious Party that religious girls be required to perform some sort of national service, such as nursing or teaching, in lieu of military duties.

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