Israel’s Internal War

The Haredi exemption from army service has brought the country to a social breaking point.
By | Mar 28, 2024
Cover Story, Israel, Latest
A man in the traditional dress of the Haredim prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Hundreds killed, kidnapped, tortured and mutilated. Thousands displaced. An entire country at war, almost every family with someone at the front. And yet, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the greatest danger facing Israel today, one that has been tearing it apart, is the issue of drafting Haredi yeshiva students. The high court’s move to end the Haredi draft exemption, though dramatic, is unlikely to resolve this long-running issue.

This year alone, 66,000 Haredi boys of draft age—the equivalent of six army battalions—received an exemption from serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Only 540 Haredi boys in that category have enlisted since the October 7 war broke out.

With enemies on multiple fronts—including Hamas, Hezbollah and terror organizations operating in Judea and Samaria under the nose of the Palestinian Authority—the IDF indicated it would need to draft at least 1,400 additional people into combat units in March alone. To that end, all deferments for students in pre-army programs (meant to enhance their readiness for elite units) were canceled. Moreover, under a proposed law effectively doubling the legal limit of reserve military duty, reservists may be called up to serve as much as 126 days (up from 54) every three years, and may be required to serve for 40 consecutive days at a time, up from 25. 



Under these unique circumstances, the entrenched inequity of increasing demands on those already serving, while giving the Haredi community a free pass, has brought the country to a social breaking point.

The seeds for the current crisis were planted at the founding of the state, when David Ben-Gurion himself accepted the demands of the then-small ultra-Orthodox community not to draft 400 yeshiva students. At the time, it was understandable. So many European yeshivot and their students and rabbis had been slaughtered by the Nazis, and here was a tiny, precious remnant. Today, however, the Haredi community has grown to 13.6 percent of the Israeli population and 15 percent of draft-age males, but Haredi men can postpone and eventually avoid military service altogether simply by signing a form declaring they are full-time yeshiva students.

It’s not the first time this near-intolerable situation has come to a head. In 2012, a High Court of Justice decision struck down the law permitting such discrimination among Israeli draftees. Since then, the court has struck down several equally unfair draft laws created under the pressure of Haredi political parties. The court gave the government an April 1 deadline to come up with a fair law or draft everyone equally, but the government has continued to stall.

The bitterness of the national divide on this subject was showcased in a skit on the widely watched satirical show Eretz Nehederet (“Wonderful Country”) in which army personnel sent to inform a family of a fallen soldier knock at a door opened by Haredi parents, who are quick to inform them they have the wrong address: This, after all, is Bnei Brak, the Haredi neighborhood! Haredim reacted with outrage to the skit.  Yet it pretty much sums up the situation. The Haredim and their political representatives maintain that the army experience will destroy religious observance and that their prayers and Torah study are just as important as soldiers, guns and tanks in keeping the country safe. 

This argument is easily countered by the experience of the Religious Zionist movement, whose sons have always served, and who thrive as part of a deeply religious community. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, head of a yeshiva, Har Bracha, where students learn Talmud as well as serving in the army, expressed a widespread consensus when he wrote in an online weekly discussion of Jewish law that “Torah study is crucial for the existence of the nation of Israel, and must be assigned regular and serious frameworks, but it does not override the mitzvah of military service…in which two great mitzvot are fulfilled that are equivalent to the entire Torah–saving Israel from its enemies, and settlement of the Land.” 

Some Haredim agree. In fact, more than 2,000 untrained Haredim volunteered for military service after October 7. This hopeful sign is unfortunately the exception, not the rule, highlighting the failure of Haredim to share the country’s military and economic burdens, while demanding their institutions and families be supported by the tax dollars of those who do. 

The conflict is especially tragic and egregious given that almost all Israeli families are part of both worlds. Three of my grandsons are in Haredi yeshivot, while four of my other grandchildren are currently soldiers. Since the ones not serving all grew up in France and are new immigrants, we are hopeful that their views will change as they acclimate. They tell me they are simply complying with the law of the land. Yet, it is hard to imagine a fair law ever being passed, given Haredi political power. 

No law would be necessary if the revered rabbinical authorities heading Israeli Haredi institutions and Hasidic movements would simply instruct their communities of their religious obligation to serve in the military. Instead, the opposite is true. Already Haredim are taking to the streets with signs that read: “Put me in front of a firing squad, I won’t serve!” and “Israel has enough soldiers!”—rhetoric tailor-made to tear apart our country and our families, leaving behind devastation that will dwarf everything we in Israel have endured so far.

Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Zichron Yakov, Israel. 

Top Image: Brian Jeffery Beggerly, CC BY 2.0

4 thoughts on “Israel’s Internal War

  1. Kai ben Abraham says:

    The Haredi draft exemption must be ended. Eligible age haradim must be treated the same as any other militarily aged eligible citizen.

  2. Les Bergen says:

    “66,000 Haredi boys of draft age—the equivalent of six army battalions” is not correct. A typical battalion is 500 soldiers. A typical bridge is about 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers, so even that is not right. It is equivalent to 5 or 6 U.S. Army divisions of about 12,000 soldiers. I don’t know if Israel has such large troop units.

    1. Les Bergen says:

      brigade, not bridge. Spellcheck mice.

    2. Roberta Berg says:

      The point is the number 66,000 Haredi men of military age who do not serve in the military, not the number of troops in a battalion.

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