Explainer | Will Israel Draft ‘Those Who Toil in Torah’?

By | Apr 04, 2024
Cover Story, Israel, Latest, Opinion
Soldiers of all five brigades at the Western Wall

On April 1, one of Israel’s most contentious debates may—or may not—have come to an end.

As of now, the blanket legal exemption from military conscription for 63,000 Haredi yeshiva students has expired and—in a separate development—an interim order by the High Court of Justice has barred the government from transferring subsidies to the yeshivot where these students learn.

Yet even though they are now subject to conscription, we are unlikely to see mass arrests of Haredi draft-dodgers in the near future, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government are desperately scrambling to find new legal ways to continue to allow Haredim to avoid the draft and to fund them while they do.

Until they do find these solutions, Netanyahu is facing a serious threat to the stability of his government. And no matter how this situation ultimately plays out, two things are already very clear: First, even Netanyahu, long known as Israel’s most adept political juggler, couldn’t keep all of his balls in the air. Second, for the first time in Israeli history, a crack has appeared in the historic agreement by which the Haredi parties act as kingmakers for whichever party will provide them with blanket military exemptions and support for their yeshivot.

Haredi leaders argue that enlisting their men will cause them to stray from the righteous path of Judaism. They also contend that full-time Torah study in a yeshiva protects the state no less than fighting in the army. But there are economic reasons for opposing military conscription, too: Ultra-Orthodox yeshivot receive funds according to the number of students studying in them, and so keeping the students out of the draft is crucial for their survival. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think tank in Jerusalem, the budget of the ultra-Orthodox yeshivot amounted to some NIS 1.7 billion in 2023. 

The current arrangement dates back to 1949, when founding Israeli Prime Minister and Minister of Defense David Ben-Gurion offered the ultra-Orthodox exemptions for 400 students of conscription age in exchange for their support for the establishment of the State of Israel. The Haredim contended that, after the loss of their students in the Holocaust, it was necessary to create a “learning society” of Torah scholars. The deal has continued in the intervening decades.

Yet over the years, various civil society groups have petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice against this arrangement, but the court refused to intervene until 1995, when the number of yeshiva students receiving exemptions had ballooned to 26,262. In response to yet another petition, the court then demanded that the question of exemptions be grounded in law, rather than executive decision by the minister of defense.

The Knesset finally passed a law, known as the Tal Law, in 2002, which was designed to encourage Haredim to enlist but still authorized the Ministry of Defense to grant deferments for fulltime Torah study. In reality, it barely changed the situation. As the numbers of deferments for the Haredim continued to swell, in 2012 the court determined that the Tal Law was unconstitutional because it violated basic principles of equality. In 2014, another law was enacted; in 2017, the court struck down this law, too, for the same reasons. This time, the court gave the government a year to produce another new, more equitable law.

Since then, Israel has had numerous governments, and each time, the Haredim have conditioned their support for these governments on finding a solution that would maintain both the exemptions and the funding. Unable to do so, successive governments have asked the court for extensions. Finally, the court, apparently losing patience, gave the government an ultimatum: pass a law by June 2023 or the Haredim will be drafted.

This deadline was looming over Netanyahu as he formed his government in January 2023. Knowing that, like Ben-Gurion, he needed the Haredim, Netanyahu promised them he would find a way to continue the status quo and prevent the court from intervening. When the June 2023 deadline came up, the government simply instructed the IDF to “temporarily” not draft Haredi students.  

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s allies were attempting to overhaul the judicial system and restrict the High Court’s power. This would have solved Netanyahu’s Haredi problem, but he severely underestimated public response to these political machinations. For 38 consecutive weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to demonstrate against the proposed “judicial reform,” which in their eyes denuded the court of its ability to maintain judicial oversight and uphold basic democratic principles. Many protesters saw the proposed overhaul as a way for the government to eliminate checks on its own power and to keep Netanyahu, who is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, out of jail.

And then came October 7 and the ongoing war. More than 360,000 Israelis have been called up for reserve duty, and the military is struggling to maintain the necessary manpower to continue fighting in Gaza. As part of this effort, IDF reservists’ mandatory service period has been extended and the army has begun recruiting some 1,300 Israelis currently enrolled in pre-army programs, national religious yeshivas and community service programs.

And while at the beginning of the war, it seemed that rank-and-file Haredim were choosing to enlist despite their leaders’ and rabbis’ objections, since the war began only 1,140 have actually done so.

Inflammatory statements by Haredi leaders have increased the furor. As the numbers of casualties in the war continues to grow, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef described secular Jews as “pitiable and stupid [people] who did not find fulfillment in life—people who were jealous of Haredi Jews” and warned that rather than enlist in the army, the Haredim would leave the country en masse.

A recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that 70 percent of Israeli Jews support ending the longstanding blanket exemption from military service for Haredim, up from 60 percent in 2018.

Facing these sentiments, the non-Haredi members of the coalition have begun to rebel. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s probable successor after the next election, angrily pointed out that the issue of a blanket Haredi refusal was “a red line during normal times and a black flag during wartime”—and threatened that his party (National Unity) would bolt the coalition. He also pointed to a black hole in the budget that would grow over the next decade if service for reservists is extended and the Haredim continue to be exempted. This week, Gantz called for early elections in September to restore trust in the government by Israelis and allies.

As expected, after the April 1 decision ending subsidies for the yeshivot, the Haredi parties have directed their fury toward the courts, which, they have long claimed, have consistently preferred the democratic character of the state over its Jewish obligations. The head of United Torah Judaism, Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, called the decision a “stain and a disgrace” that will cause “severe harm to those who toil in Torah.” Shas Party head Aryeh Deri said the decision constituted “unprecedented maltreatment for Torah study in the Jewish state” and tweeted, “The people of Israel are engaged in a war of existence on several fronts and the judges of the High Court did everything tonight to create a fratricidal war as well.”

Some Haredim have taken to the streets, blocking central highways and declaring that they will “die rather than draft” and that “Stalin is here.”

Channel 12 has reported that while there is unlikely to be a large-scale enforcement of conscription orders any time soon, any ultra-Orthodox man who is eligible for the draft could be arrested if he were to fall into the hands of the police even for a minor infraction, such as a traffic violation. 

Speaking with The Times of Israel, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Roth said that the decision “won’t have an impact right away,” insisting that the allocations for the yeshivas’ March budgets will still go out this month and that it will not be until mid-May that the ruling will have a real impact. In the meantime, he said, the Haredim will search for additional funding from Haredi groups abroad, mostly in the United States.

At some point, hopefully in the near future, the government and all of Israeli society will have to engage in a deep debate about the relationships between the Haredi community and the state and its non-Haredi citizens. Until then, Netanyahu is in a bind: If the government abolishes the exemption, it risks a walkout from the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers; if it lets the exemption stand, the secular members could withdraw. Either way, the coalition could collapse.

Unless, of course, he finds a way to pick up and start juggling anew these mismatched, but necessary, political balls.

Top image: Soldiers of all five brigades at the Western Wall – from left to right, Kfir Brigade, Golani Brigade, Paratroopers Brigade, Givati Brigade, and Nahal Brigade. (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0).

2 thoughts on “Explainer | Will Israel Draft ‘Those Who Toil in Torah’?

  1. HARRIET S. KATZ says:

    I am one of those Jews who was described by Rabbi Yosef as “…pitiable and stupid…” I do not reside in Israel, but I am actively involved in Jewish life , primarily through my Reform congregation (which probably does not make me Jewish enough for the good Rabbi) and have for most of my adult life considered the Jewish State to be my second home – one for whose existence I would willingly fight if that were practically possible. His threat that “Haredim would leave the country en masse…” rings hollow. Where else in the world would they be as welcome and free to practice their particular religious obligations as they see fit, with no government or community backlash over their unwillingness to participate in the social fabric of that community? Where else would the shadow of anti-semitism not lurk in the background, very easily awakened? I deplore the meanness of his tone and the lack of appreciation for all the good that the State of Israel has afforded his followers in their quest to be closer to G-d.

  2. hag says:

    YES… and even worse than the Oct … 4 women were arrested for wearing Talit… some nonsense charge, that does not sound like wearing a Talit…
    is this what we are fighting for ??????????? (and pleazzz don’t tell me it will be fixed A F T E R,,,,,,,,,,,,

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