Jerusalem: 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 centres 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.