JERUSALEM - It is almost prayer time in Ramot, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in north Jerusalem, and men in black suits, white ties and black hats with wide brims are hurrying to the synagogue.
On July 31, the 10-year-old “Tal Law” exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from military duty expired, sparking a nationwide debate in Israel over the past few weeks.
The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, but since then, members of the government haven’t been able to agree on new legislation. Theoretically, enlistment has now become mandatory for all 18-year-old Israelis – no more exemptions.
Yitzhak lives in Ramot with his wife. He spends eight to nine hours a day studying at the yeshiva, the religious school, to become a rabbi. The 21-year-old has just received his draft papers, which means he could be called up within two months – something he’s not even considering. "I'm not worried," he says. "There are 50,000 yeshiva students in my situation, and they aren't going to come for all of us."
A spiritual army
"We need an army - there has always been one, even in the Bible - but we also need a spiritual army," adds Yitzhak. "Studying at the yeshiva full-time is a lot harder than being in the army."
The young man cannot imagine having to sacrifice the time he devotes to studying the Torah and the Talmud. "Doing your military service - even if you keep studying at the same time - is a potentially dangerous idea; it implies that studying isn't that important after all. When people see an Orthodox Jew in the military service, they are usually puzzled. A young girl raised in a very religious environment definitely wouldn’t marry someone like that, she has to marry a man who studies."
From behind his cash register in Mea Shearim, the historic ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, Essji confirms that it is a taboo. "Here, a man who serves with the military is a dishonor to his family. The family refuses to accept it, and he often has to distance himself from them,” he says.
In this quiet neighborhood, Haredim ("God-fearing" people) from different branches, Hassidim or Mitnagdim, meet in the streets, wearing their groups' distinct caftans and hats. Here, you won’t see any army uniforms.
Essji, an Orthodox Jew who moved to Israel from the United States, says the philosophy of Rabbi Chazon Ish, one of the leaders of Orthodox Judaism, helps explain why young people shouldn't be in the army. "Among the new generation, some want to have a better life and make a bit of money, but Israeli employers don't hire those who haven’t done their military service," he says. "In America it's different: ultra-Orthodox Jews are allowed to work and study at the yeshiva at the same time."
Rabbi Mordekhai Bitton, bent over a bound edition of the Talmud, says the refusal to enlist is explained by history. "We are in a period of transition. After the Holocaust, there were no more Orthodox Jews left to study the Torah," he says. "And wherever the study of the Torah ceased, the Jewish people disappeared. We must have religious scholars. In Orthodox families, five people get together to support Torah scholars: the parents, the wife and the in-laws."
The army, perceived as a symbol of the non-religious world, scares Orthodox Jews. "Becoming a Torah scholar is not an easy decision for a child. It is our role to protect him using the "three 20s" model: until he is 20, we build a wall for him that is 20 meters high and 20 meters thick," says Rabbi Bitton. "The army – even the ultra-Orthodox Nahal Haredi battalions – represents a danger for spirituality, so what parent is willing to take that risk?"
Tsahal, the Israeli Defense Forces, are trying to integrate the Haredim into these specialized Nahal Haredi battalions. Conditions are adapted to make room for daily study time, with access to a military rabbi, strictly kosher food and limited contact with women soldiers. According to an army spokesperson, in 2011, nearly 1,200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers started their military service. "By 2014, we expect 2,400 soldiers to enroll each year in the different programs geared towards the ultra-Orthodox public," the spokesman says.
Even though enrolment numbers are growing, they’re still very low. Orthodox rabbis say the army doesn't need them anyway, in an era of ultra-sophisticated and technological intelligence-heavy warfare. "Why doesn't Israel move on to a professional army like other countries… everything would be fixed!" asks Rabbi Henri Kahn, who manages Kountrass, a French ultra-Orthodox magazine.
For him, the security of Israel, "a people of five million Jews surrounded by a billion enemies," relies above all on "miracles" and "divine providence." "What do you need to do to benefit from miracles and divine providence? All the answers are written in the Bible. It is a code, and to decipher it, you need to spend days and nights studying it."
Despite the end of the Tal Law, Haredim rabbis are not worried. Their stance on the military service is non-negotiable, and they feel they are at the vanguard of a new vigor of Orthodox Judaism. "We know that the state can't do much about this, and they certainly can’t throw 50,000 young people in jail for refusing to enroll," Rabbi Kahn says. The government will have to find a way around this."
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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