UTJ: Israel has no right to exist without full-time Torah students

Assailing chief rabbi, Lapid says Haredim would have to get jobs if they moved abroad

Opposition leader notes ultra-Orthodox wouldn’t get government stipends overseas as they do in Israel, reacting to Yitzhak Yosef’s threat they’ll bolt country if forced into army

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Haredi men clash with police during a protest outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Haredi men clash with police during a protest outside the IDF recruitment office in Jerusalem, March 4, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Sunday that members of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community, many of whom do not work, would find it difficult to adjust to life outside of Israel, continuing his criticism of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef’s declaration that Haredim would “go abroad” if forcibly enlisted in the military

“If the Haredim go abroad, they will find that the ultra-Orthodox there work for a living, not even dreaming that someone will finance them,” Lapid told Army Radio — referring to the fact that only 55.8 percent of Israeli Haredi men work for a living.

Yeshiva students, who receive government stipends for their studies, often view integration into the secular world as a threat to their religious identity and community continuity — leading some to take to the streets last week to declare that they would “die rather than enlist” into the Israel Defense Forces.

Speaking on Saturday evening, Yosef declared that those who learn Torah must not be drafted “under any circumstances, no matter what” and that if yeshiva students are forcibly enlisted, the Haredim would “go abroad.”

“Without the Torah, without the kollels, without the yeshivas, the army will have no success,” he asserted.

In the first of a series of criticisms of the rabbi and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party founded by his father, the late chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Lapid said that Yosef’s remarks were “a disgrace and insult to IDF soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the defense of the country.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid gives a statement to the media at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 6, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Rabbi Yosef is a state employee, with a salary from the state — he cannot threaten the state,” he wrote on X.

In response, Shas — referencing activists who said they would not perform military reserve duty if the coalition’s controversial overhaul of the judicial system passed — said, “One who silently encouraged the refusal of organizations that opposed the judicial reform should not preach morality to us.”

The IDF’s Personnel Directorate told a Knesset committee last month that some 66,000 young men from the ultra-Orthodox community received an exemption from military service over the past year, reportedly an all-time record. Some 540 of them decided to enlist since the war started, the IDF said.

Yosef’s comments also received support on Sunday, with Religious Services Ministry director general Yehudah Avidan saying he would also leave the country if the government begins to draft Haredim.

“If they give me the order, I will leave the country,” Avidan, whose ministry is helmed by Shas’s Michael Malkieli, told public broadcaster Kan.

The United Torah Judaism party also backed Yosef, saying that those who study Jewish religious texts have “sustained us through thousands of years of exile.”

“We have no right to exist as a nation, God forbid, in the Land of Israel, without Torah scholars engaged in full-time study,” the party declared.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters dance while holding a sign reading “The people of Israel do not have a right to exist without Torah,” Route 4 near Bnei Brak, Mar. 4, 2024. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

In 2022, the Haredi population numbered some 1,280,000, about 13.3% of Israel’s total population, according to the Israel Democracy Institute. By 2050, nearly one-quarter of Israel’s population will be ultra-Orthodox, according to projections by the National Economic Council.

Successive Netanyahu governments have struggled to come to a consensus on legislation dealing with ultra-Orthodox military service since a 2017 High Court decision determined blanket military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to be discriminatory and unconstitutional and ordered the state to find a solution to the issue.

A law that authorizes the exemption expired in June 2023, and a temporary regulation to extend it is set to expire at the end of March, after which the military will not be authorized to exempt Haredi young men from the draft.

While the Haredi-backed coalition seeks to legislate a new law extending the exemption, the matter has become increasingly contentious, given the war in Gaza and the great strain it has put on the serving population.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced Wednesday he opposes extending blanket exemptions and that he would only back legislation on the matter that is endorsed by centrist ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, who joined the cabinet for the sake of the war effort.

According to Gallant, manpower strains on the army during fighting in Gaza and on the northern border require the contribution of all sectors of society, making the exemption that Haredi men receive in order to study in yeshivas impractical.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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