Inside Story

Can winds of change in Haredi community help defuse battle over conscription?

While some are steadfastly opposed to service, others claim growing openness to the draft, particularly post-Oct. 7, and argue authorities would be wise to use carrots, not sticks

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men arrive at the IDF recruitment center to volunteer for military service amid the ongoing war against Hamas, October 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men arrive at the IDF recruitment center to volunteer for military service amid the ongoing war against Hamas, October 23, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Yossi Levi is a member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, whose exemption from compulsory military service is dividing Israel and threatens to topple its government. He is also a major in the infantry reserves of the Israel Defence Forces.

The long-standing military waiver for the ultra-Orthodox has sparked waves of protest in recent weeks by more secular Israelis, angry that they are shouldering the risk and drudgery of fighting the war in Gaza, now six months old. In city streets, ultra-Orthodox demonstrators have scuffled with combat veterans who sport khaki shirts and hoist national flags.

In fact, around 10% of the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are known, come forward voluntarily for the standard three years of military service, Levi said. Some go on to be officers, like him.

That amounts to just 1,200 ultra-Orthodox volunteers a year — a tiny number compared to an estimated 170,000 active soldiers and nearly 500,000 reservists in Israel. The IDF does not publish troop numbers.

But Levi, who runs the Netzah Yehuda organization that encourages ultra-Orthodox enlistment, says attitudes are softening within some parts of the community towards military service amid the war. And that, he hopes, could be enough to ease the current crisis.

“We can double it and can triple it in one, two years, and we can see a lot of Haredim and it’s going to be enough for the IDF,” said the 33-year-old at his Jerusalem headquarters, where one wall is adorned with pictures of fallen Haredi soldiers. “They don’t want all of the Haredim.”

Troops from the ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion operate in northern Gaza’s Beit Hanoun, in a handout image published April 4, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Thousands of angry Israelis took to the streets last weekend — many of them military reservists — to call for the removal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government relies on ultra-Orthodox support for its survival.

Ultra-Orthodox political parties are deeply invested in keeping their constituents in seminaries and away from the IDF. They see in the military’s brawn a distraction from the Torah and Talmud; in its gender mixing and other progressive facets, affronts to their conservative mores.

The exemption from conscription dates back to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, designed in part to rebuild rabbinical dynasties destroyed during the Holocaust. But it has attracted criticism as the ultra-Orthodox population has grown rapidly.

The issue is coming to a head. As of April 1, state subsidies for draft-age men in seminaries have been suspended on the orders of the Supreme Court. The tribunal, however, granted Netanyahu’s request for an extension until month’s end to keep negotiating over a much-delayed blueprint for a fairer sharing of the burden of military service.

Protesters outside a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on the government’s drafting of ultra-Orthodox men, on February 26, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two government officials briefed on the talks — who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information — said that a doubling of the number of Haredi volunteers, to 2,500 troops a year, with further increases thereafter, was among the ideas under discussion.

One of the officials said the IDF was considering creating Haredi border garrisons that would double as seminaries or assigning Haredi soldiers to policing roles enabling regular home leave.

At present, most of the ultra-Orthodox volunteers serve in seven units tailored to their needs. They have all-male training staff, strictly kosher rations and lectures by rabbis.

The IDF declined to comment on the conscription debate, referring policy questions to the government. Netanyahu’s office had no immediate response. The prime minister told reporters on March 29 that the thinking within the ultra-Orthodox community on conscription had come a long way.

“There is real desire here to reach agreement, and not a collision, at the height of a war,” he said.

Reuters spoke to six serving officials, as well as three figures on opposite sides of the debate, who said the room for compromise is extremely narrow.

Illustrative: The Mir Yeshiva in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, September 19, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Many ultra-Orthodox say they will not accept forced conscription. “Better Dead than Drafted,” read a placard at a recent protest.

“[Secular Israelis] don’t want us to be religious,” said Yisrael Kaya, a Haredi attending an anti-conscription protest in Jerusalem grouping a few dozen people. “Therefore, we prefer to die and not to go to the army.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi and the spiritual mentor of ultra-Orthodox party Shas, warned in a March 9 sermon that drew intense criticism that Haredim would move abroad rather than be forced into the army.

Rabbi Motke Bloy, an educator linked to another ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism, said the vast majority of Haredim remained opposed to compulsory IDF service.

“This is persecution for persecution’s sake, with a strong whiff of political antagonism toward Bibi,” he told Reuters, using Netanyahu’s nickname. He said any attempt to impose a compulsory draft would fail: “Tens of thousands of Torah students would rather sit behind bars.”

File – Sephardic chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef at an inauguration ceremony for a new ritual bath for women, in the northern town of Safed, August 17, 2023. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

A cabinet divided

Keeping Haredi recruitment voluntary may not satisfy the official tasked with expanding the ranks of an overstretched IDF: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

When a compromise bill, setting no quotas for Haredi troops in the military nor criminal penalties for such quotas going unmet, leaked to Israeli media in March, Gallant announced that he and the military brass would not back it.

Gallant is being reinforced by two centrist members of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot. Both are former IDF chiefs of staff who have also long demanded a comprehensive expansion of conscription and civilian national service options for Israel’s Arab minority, who, like Haredim, are currently exempt.

“There is every indication that we’re headed toward a rupture in the government,” said an aide to one of the ministers who, like all six Israeli officials briefed on the closed-door conscription debate, spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. All of the officials concurred the discussions were at an impasse, though only one went as far as suggesting that there could be a “rupture.”

Gallant, Gantz and Eisenkot, like the UTJ and Shas, have not formally laid out their red lines. Nor have they indicated where gaps may be bridged in time. The ministers did not respond to a request for comment on the talks.

With the end-month deadline looming, an anti-government protest group drawing on IDF veterans, Brothers in Arms, has staged marches in Haredi neighborhoods, leading to altercations with locals.

Asked about initiatives that might incentivize Haredi to join the military, such as the creation of special border garrisons, a Brothers in Arms spokesperson said: “We will be in favor of any solution that entails the full enlistment of Haredi society in the military or civilian national service.”

File – Brothers in Arms members calling for equal conscription laws to be implemented scuffle with police and residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, March 31, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Shortage of troops

While the IDF does not publish personnel numbers, it has made no secret of needing more troops.

Almost 3,800 have been killed or wounded in the war — a whole brigade’s worth. “And we’re short of several brigades beyond that,” one official said.

With the conflict liable to last months and potentially spread to other fronts, many Israelis say their national cohesion hinges on broader and more equitable conscription.

The ultra-Orthodox are Israel’s fastest-growing minority. Haredim make up 13% of Israel’s population and are due to reach 19% by 2035 given their high birth rates.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), an independent think tank based in Jerusalem, 66,000 ultra-Orthodox men could now be under arms but are not — a dizzying rise from the 400 scholars who were initially exempted at the country’s founding.

Ultra-Orthodox men protest against the IDF draft in Jerusalem, April 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Jerusalem Post reported in late December that, out of a total of 20,000 Haredi reservists, about 7,000 had been operational during the Gaza war. An IDF spokesperson said those were not official figures and declined further comment.

Three of the six Israeli officials interviewed by Reuters said that dragooning Haredim would be an untenable threat to delicate ties between religion and state. One quailed at the idea of military police chasing draft dodgers through Haredi districts.

Yair Lapid, a liberal ex-prime minister who now leads the parliamentary opposition, has suggested that a Haredi draft should be enforced through withholding funds — rather than jail.

“If they don’t get conscripted, they won’t get money,” he told lawmakers from his secularist Yesh Atid party on March 11.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a meeting of his Yesh Atid faction at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 11, 2024. (Sindel/Flash90)

A changing community

Polls show that Israel’s Jewish majority — Haredim included — remains strongly supportive of the war, which was triggered by the shock October 7 Hamas assault on Israel.

Levi, the ultra-Orthodox IDF major, said Haredi soldiers — whose uniforms once stirred hostility in their hometowns — were getting greater respect after the Hamas onslaught.

“A lot of people there support the IDF much more. They feel that something is different,” he said.

But Bloy, the educator, saw no such change due to the conflict. Those Haredim more open to the IDF are motivated mostly by considerations predating the war, such as economic factors, he said.

The IDI has found a 34% poverty rate among Haredim, compared to 21% overall in the population. Economists say that has been caused, in part, by many Haredi men staying in seminaries — and out of the workforce.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox students seen at the Ponovitz Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, February 27, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Still, the Haredi poverty rate is declining, having been at 44% as recently as 2019, the IDI said — an indicator of a dovetailing with mainstream society, which may be linked to military service.

“There’s a shift taking place in the Haredi world today. There is the open Haredi, the new Haredi,” said Rabbi Karmi Gross, head of the Derech Haim seminary in Gan Yavne, some of whose students combine scientific with scriptural studies. Some of the students then go on to serve in IDF technology units that equip them with a future profession.

In combat units, too, Haredim are learning leadership skills that help them find civilian careers, Levi said.

Both he and Gross counseled against strong-handed enlistment tactics, saying Haredim could be drawn in by incentives.

Levi recommended inducements aimed at Haredi men less suited for long hours of scriptural studies.

“If we want to be smart, we have to split between the Haredim that are learning Torah all day in the yeshivot and the Haredim that are not,” said Levi, referring to the seminaries by their Hebrew name.

Illustrative: Haredi Jews visit Israeli soldiers to show their support as they deploy at a position near the border with Gaza in southern Israel on October 11, 2023. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Marking a generational evolution, Haredi soldiers who were once considered off-limits for marriage within their disapproving communities can now find like-minded wives through a match-making service offered by Netzah Yehuda.

In its first year of existence, the service has already produced dozens of couples, a spokesman for Netzah Yehuda said.

“After 20 years of work with the Haredi society, we can see a lot of girls who want to meet soldiers,” Levi said, referring to Haredim who did army service and kept their community values. “[The women who use the service] want that type of guy.”

Gross said some Haredi parents are wary of their daughters ending up the sole breadwinner by marrying a seminary student — and that this has helped ease taboos against men’s IDF service.

Yet few Haredim inculcate reverence for the military, unlike in mainstream Israeli society, where children are often raised on their parents’ or elder siblings’ war lore.

Illustrative: A religious Jewish soldier is embraced by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family member after a swearing-in ceremony for the IDF Nahal Haredi unit, at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, May 26, 2012 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

That alienation from what is a core national institution prompted Bloy to warn against a “culture war” over the issue.

Shimi Schlesinger, a 25-year-old Haredi seminary student, told Reuters he understood the anguish of more secular families who had lost their sons and daughters in the war.

“But honestly, we aren’t able to serve in the military. Because, without Torah, a Jewish community would not exist,” he said. “And I believe that Torah protects us even more than the military.”

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