In October, Israel Defense Forces Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari reported that the IDF had received more than 2,000 requests from Haredim who sought to volunteer. The announcement made front pages throughout Israel since most ultra-Orthodox Jewish men do not serve in the IDF, thanks to an arrangement dating back to 1948.
At the foundation of the state, this agreement was forged because it was felt the scant remnants of pre-Holocaust Jewry and its storied scholarship needed to be allowed to rebuild. It granted the roughly 400 Haredi men of enlistment age at the time a de facto exemption from military service — and created a precedent.
Since the 1950s and 1960s, but mainly the late 1970s, when the Haredim entered government under Likud’s Menachem Begin and gained a measure of control over the state coffers, the community has become what the late sociologist Menachem Friedman called a “Scholar Society” — a community of men who study Torah full time. This did not exist in prewar Europe, where Jews also had to earn a living and only the brightest spent their entire lives in yeshiva, and is still rare throughout the Diaspora today.
In Israel, the Haredi population is growing at an annual average of four percent — twice the rate of the general public. At the end of 2022, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Haredim accounted for around 15 percent of all Jewish Israelis aged 18 — the age of enlistment.
Under the current arrangements, an ultra-Orthodox man can defer his IDF service by studying in yeshiva from the age of 18 until he ages out of the draft. This is currently set at age 26. (Haredi women are not called up.) While exempt, he is not allowed to work, so he relies on government subsidies.
Efforts to enshrine the exemption in law have met with opposition from the High Court, on the grounds that the legislation didn’t meet the requirement for equal sharing of the military burden across the nation. This is one reason why the Haredi political parties supported the controversial so-called override clause proposed by the government last year; if passed, it would have established a mechanism by which the Knesset could enact legislation even if it had been struck down by the High Court.
As recently as October 3, Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, threatened to resign unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu advanced a planned law guaranteeing blanket military service exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox community.
Then came October 7, when Hamas terrorists invaded Israel, murdering 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and abducting 253 to the Gaza Strip.
Immediately, countless Haredi initiatives sprang up to support soldiers and communities being evacuated from the Gaza, and later the Lebanon, borders. Volunteers collected food and equipment. They sent people to funerals and shivas, where families host visitors during a seven-day mourning period. Away from the eye of the general public, some 20,000 Haredi teens were dispatched to help farmers — not only religious ones — harvest their crops after thousands of foreign farmhands left the country.
Haredi volunteers with the veteran emergency service Zaka carried out some of the most gruesome tasks collecting the body parts of Hamas victims.
Surveys, such as those by Dr. Nechumi Yaffe, an ultra-Orthodox researcher at Tel Aviv University’s School of Social and Policy Studies, suggested a possible softening of Haredi attitudes towards the non-Haredi public and the idea of army enlistment.
To better understand whether the shock of October 7 might lead to more ultra-Orthodox Jews enlisting, The Times of Israel spoke to Dr. Eliezer Hayun, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who researches Haredim at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Times of Israel: Can you start by explaining why the rabbis object so strongly to Haredi conscription, especially of younger men?
Dr. Eliezer Hayun: They genuinely believe that studying the Torah protects the People of Israel no less than military service. Rabbi Dov Landa [co-head of the Slobodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak], considered one of the greats of his generation, even wrote to yeshiva students who wanted to volunteer to help the war effort. He said, “Don’t you understand that Torah study provides far greater protection?” This belief is a very basic and central part of Haredi rhetoric.
There’s also a belief that a Haredi boy who goes to the army won’t come out of it as observant as he was before. That really frightens the Haredi rabbis, even those who are more modern, more alternative. Even those say they fear that the IDF isn’t yet ready to receive ultra-Orthodox Jews and to protect their Haredi identity.
Remember, Haredi society is very closed. There’s a sociological fear that it will be harmed and that people will leave the community. The spiritual influences the social and vice versa.
What do the rabbis want now?
At present, there’s no law. There’s a special order by which the defense minister approves each postponement of service. But this can’t go on indefinitely. The rabbis want to continue this arrangement, which says a yeshiva student will be able to keep postponing his military service until he gets a [permanent] exemption. They don’t care at what age that is.
What is the rabbis’ attitude towards older Haredi men doing some kind of military duty? Many married Haredi men attend a kollel where they study full time. But what about the 55% of Haredi men aged 25 to 64 who go out to work? Wasn’t it men from the latter category who turned up at the army recruitment centers after October 7?
Yes, it was. They signed up for an army program that’s been going for years called Shlav Bet [Second Stage]. It passed quietly. The rabbis won’t say anything in favor or against it. They’d prefer men to go to kollel, but if they’re already going out to work… These men tend to be married, and once you have a home, you’re more likely to preserve a Haredi way of life. The chance of you being influenced by the army is far lower. And remember that Second Stage is a very shortened service and it’s not combat. [It comprises three weeks of training in basic weapons use, first aid, and rescue, and attachment to positions in the Home Front command.]
What different voices did you hear after October 7?
The conservative, mainstream rabbis were very clear. They asked people to pray more. Also, there’s a concept in the Ethics of the Fathers which commands us to feel the pain, the difficulty, of others. There is empathy. To say there’s none would be wrong. After prayers, people are reciting Psalms to help protect the soldiers.
The rabbis also asked the students to come back a week early from their winter break. They addressed them as if they were the spiritual soldiers who had to come back to the yeshiva to do their work, just as other soldiers had to go to the front. It’s like there’s a religious army that helps the physical army. This is the most common attitude.
But there are other voices. Like those of Rav Dovid Leibel [a former close associate of the late Haredi leader Elazar Shach, and head of the Achvas Torah Kollel network, which enables working Haredi men to study at night]. Or Rabbi Yehoshua Pepper, or Rabbi Raphael Kreuzer, who called on yeshiva students after October 7 to share the military burden.
There are a few rabbis with alternative voices, new voices. They come and say we must contribute to the military effort. We must be part of the Israeli collective. But even they won’t advocate enlisting every yeshiva student.
I interviewed Rav Leibel last week and asked if he thought yeshiva students should enlist and he said, “No, the army isn’t ready to draft them.”
It sounds like a question of the horse and the cart.
Their influence is much, much less than the mainstream rabbis. You could even say they’re on the fringes, if you compare them, say, to Rav Landa, or Rabbi David Cohen, a member of the Torah Council and head of the Hebron Yeshiva [in Jerusalem]. Asked whether yeshiva students who found it hard to study could volunteer, Rabbi Cohen said, “The role of the young man was to sit and study.”
You wrote a powerful piece for the Ynet news site saying that just like their secular peers, young Haredi men wanted to protect those close to them, to return dusty from the battlefield, to be able to say that their mothers didn’t sleep at night because of worry. Did lots of yeshiva students feel frustration when told they couldn’t be part of this experience?
No, I don’t think so. A Haredi is a human. He’s exposed to what’s happening. There is a cognitive dissonance. On one hand, you want to serve, to be part of the army. But you accept that if you study Torah, you’ll also defend. That’s the only way we as humans can cope.
What role does the Haredi media play in this matter?
It depends. The printed media outlets — Yated Ne’eman, Hamodia, Hamevaser, Mishpacha — reflect the attitudes of the mainstream rabbis. They report on current events but within the context of the spiritual role the Haredi community plays.
The internet is freer and provides a place for new voices like those of Rav Leibel. Internet sites like Behadrei Haredim and Kikar Hashabbat are more liberal than printed papers.
What percentage of Haredim are exposed to the internet media?
Loads. Surveys talk about tens of percentage points.
I spoke to Dr. Nechumi Yaffe who said exposure had grown substantially during COVID, when people were shut in at home.
What options are open to Haredim who wants to enlist today?
There are combat units such as Netzah Yehuda [part of the Kfir infantry battalion] but the number of real Haredim in them is maybe a couple of hundred. Included are marginal youth, dropouts, and kids in difficult situations from a social and a religious point of view These are mainly people who have already left Haredi society, shababnikim. The problem is that by taking the margins of the margins of Haredi society, Netzah Yehuda is saying, “We’re not suited to regular yeshiva students,” who will not enlist there.
The usual framework for enlistment is the Second Stage. Over recent years, new programs have emerged, such as Kodkod [a three-year stint, which started in 2022. This trains dozens of Haredi men aged 21-27 in computer programming and integrates them into programming jobs in the defense system while enabling them to maintain a Torah-focused way of life.]. There’s Bina BeYarok. [This requires two years of service in the intelligence division of the army, and is aimed at 21- to 26-year-old Haredi men.] Thousands sign up for Kodkod, fewer are admitted. It’s very prestigious. It sets you up economically for life. You learn a profession to a very high level on the army’s dime.
The issue of Haredi conscription won’t disappear after the war and will probably heat up. If the mainstream rabbis don’t want enlistment for those studying full-time in yeshivas or kollels, is there anyone in the community that could be drafted?
After the war, we’ll arrive at the moment of truth. The Israeli public will find it even harder to accept that the Haredim don’t serve.
What won’t happen is that regular yeshiva students will enlist in any significant number. It’s not even technically possible. Try to forcibly draft tens of thousands and you’ll have a war. Some people say government benefits for the Haredim should be cut to force them to enlist. That won’t happen if the Haredim stay in the governing coalition. And I’m not sure the High Court would allow it.
I say there are lots of yeshiva students who don’t study well and that I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t go to the army. There are three study sessions in a day. These guys might come for the morning, have a coffee, wander around for a while outside the yeshiva, or go to the gym or the mall. We should start with them. You’ll never solve the problem because there will always be people who say, “Why aren’t all the yeshiva students being enlisted?” But I think it will help to douse 80% of the flames.
What would the rabbis say?
They’d have a problem. They’d say even if the student just comes for part of the day, he’ll still learn something.
There are a few levels of yeshiva students. There are the shababnikim — the lowest level of marginal youth, those that sometimes drift towards crime. The rabbis agree, even today, that they can be conscripted. They’re outside the framework anyway.
What I’m talking about is regular yeshiva students who don’t do the three daily study sessions. The numbers are not insignificant.
One solution is to establish a body that will deal with all these students, the ones who barely study. Today, the IDF doesn’t have a body like that. It doesn’t care enough about drafting the Haredim.
I’m talking about a body that will create pre-army academies [dozens of which exist for Religious Zionist and secular youth intending to join the army]. In Religious Zionism, there’s a whole world that deals with this — rabbis, pre-army academies, hesder yeshivas [that combine military service with Torah study]. It’s a wonderful platform. Very important people deal with it. This doesn’t exist in Haredi society.
Is there a chance the rabbis would allow this?
It has to come from the grassroots. The state and the army need to encourage it. And bodies will spring up within Haredi society and do it.
What about the discussions going on about lowering the exemption age to 21?
According to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, with which we held a conference last week on these issues, lowering the exemption age to 21 will help the Israeli economy. But it won’t help the issue of military enlistment.
We haven’t talked about national service…
It’s been tried and it’s failed. It’s not taken seriously. Research by Dr. Asaf Malchi [in Hebrew] concluded that it’s just not needed. Voluntary service and helping each other are built into Haredi society anyway. And it’s not military service.
Let’s look into the future. By 2065, according to Central Bureau of Statistics predictions, 40% of the Jewish population (and 30% of the total population, including Arabs and others) will be ultra-Orthodox. Won’t the pressure to share the military burden just grow?
When you talk about such big numbers, you can’t expect that 30% of the state won’t do military service and won’t be part of the economy. There’s no doubt there will be changes. The things we’ve talked about will happen. How, and in what form, we can’t say. But one thing is clear: It cannot be that the current situation will stay as it is.
Are you relying on The Times of Israel for accurate and timely coverage right now? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel