By ARON HELLER
JERUSALEM (AP) - Deep in the heart of Mea Shearim, a Jerusalem bastion of hardline ultra-Orthodox Jews, hundreds of bearded young men in black suits have their noses burrowed into books, immersed in biblical study and oblivious to their surroundings.
They are the creme de la creme of a cloistered community, the Harvard of the ultra-Orthodox world, who are expected neither to work for a living nor serve in the military with other Israelis. But it's not just the students at the prestigious Mir Yeshiva for whom prayer and study of scripture is a full-time job. Nearly the entire community has been granted sweeping exemptions that have infuriated the general public.
These young men, and their sheltered lifestyle, are at the heart of a battle that is tearing Israel apart in a clash between tradition and modernity, religion and democracy. The fight centers on whether ultra-Orthodox males should be drafted into the military along with other Jews, but it really is about a much deeper issue: the place of Judaism in the Jewish state.
The question has come to the fore as the government races to meet a Supreme Court-ordered deadline to revamp the nation's draft law. In its current form, secular males must perform three years of compulsory service when they turn 18. Ultra-Orthodox men, like the young scholars at the Mir Yeshiva, have special exemptions that allow them to continue studying in their isolated enclaves while collecting government subsidies.
For their supporters, seminary students are preserving a tradition that has served as the very bedrock of Judaism for thousands of years.
"Jews need to study the Bible. That is what makes us unique as a people," Yerach Tucker, a 30-year-old spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox community, said proudly as he guided a visitor through the Mir Yeshiva. "It is the essence of our lives."
But polls show the vast majority of Israelis, who risk their lives and put their careers on hold while serving in the military, object strongly to the arrangement, and many see it as the essence of everything that is wrong with their country.
This resentment has fueled a broader high-decibel culture war. In recent months, secular activists have rebelled against what they consider growing religious coercion by the ultra-Orthodox, such as attempts to enforce gender segregation on buses and public places, and a religious backlash by ultra-Orthodox who feel unfairly persecuted.
"It is something so ethical, so basic, that we have all grown up upon: service, giving to the state. Everyone here has to give something to society because we are one society," said Boaz Nol, a reserve officer who was among those planning a massive protest in Tel Aviv against the continued exemptions.
More than 10,000 reservists and their supporters turned out for the rally Saturday night, many of them carrying placards reading "everybody serves."
The Supreme Court earlier this year ruled the draft exemptions illegal and gave the government until Aug. 1 to figure out a new, fairer system. That is proving far more difficult than expected.
Last week, the deep divisions between religious and secular parties inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government led to the collapse of a special committee formed to draft new legislation.
Netanyahu's largest governing partner, the centrist Kadima Party, is now threatening to quit the government, just two months after joining the coalition with the goal of reforming the draft. Netanyahu has vowed to find a compromise.
Dan Halutz, a former Israeli military chief turned Kadima politician, visited the reservists' protest tent in Tel Aviv Saturday and announced that he was leaving the party.
A glimpse into the world of the ultra-Orthodox shows just how intractable the issue has become. The draft exemptions date back to the time of Israel's independence in 1948, when founding father David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered.
As ultra-Orthodox parties became power brokers, the numbers mounted. Ultra-Orthodox officials now estimate there are about 100,000 full-time Torah learners of draft age.
The pattern has lasting ramifications. The heavy emphasis on religious study, begun early on in a separate system of elementary schools, has pushed many ultra-Orthodox men to shun the work world, relying on welfare as they spend their days immersed in holy texts. The ultra-Orthodox make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens.
Steep unemployment, believed to hover around 50 percent, coupled with a high birthrate has fueled deep poverty in the ultra-Orthodox sector. With families of eight to 10 children commonplace, more than a quarter of all Israeli first graders today are ultra-Orthodox. Experts say if these trends continue, Israel's long-term economic prospects are in danger.