Chief rabbi claims his threat of Haredi exodus in case of army draft was ‘distorted’

Yitzhak Yosef does not walk back comments, but says he never meant to offend bereaved families

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends a prayer for the release of Israelis held hostage in Gaza, at Rachel's Tomb, near the Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem, October 25, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends a prayer for the release of Israelis held hostage in Gaza, at Rachel's Tomb, near the Palestinian West Bank city of Bethlehem, October 25, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef pushed back Friday against criticism sparked by his recent threat that ultra-Orthodox Jews would leave the country en masse if their community-wide exemption from military service was nullified.

“Some people distorted my words as though we had offended — heaven forfend — the bereaved families,” said the rabbi in an interview with Kan Moreshet, the public broadcaster’s religion-themed subsidiary. “Those who were killed because they are Jews — they sit in the first row before God.”

“All we had said on Saturday night was only in honor of the Torah — that we must continue and embolden Torah study in order to safeguard the people of Israel,” Yosef said.

“Of course, it is necessary to pray daily for the soldiers, who give their lives for the residents of this country,” he added, listing various prayer initiatives he had organized on behalf of troops.

Yosef did not walk back the threat he made at a weekly lecture on March 9, when he said: “If they force us to go to the army, we’ll all move abroad. We’ll buy a ticket… We’ll go there.

“All these secular people don’t understand that without kollels and yeshivas, the army would not be successful,” he had said, referring to institutions where religious men study Jewish texts rather than working or enlisting. “The soldiers only succeed thanks to those learning Torah.”

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jews walking past a pashkevil on the IDF draft law in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem, March 15, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The Chief Rabbi’s comments were made while the government mulls a new military draft law, as a manpower crunch, effected by the Gaza war, has led the military to extend mandatory service, call up greater numbers for reserve duty, and raise career soldiers’ retirement age.

Yosef is the son of the late Shas party spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, and wields major influence within the faction, which is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

Yosef’s March 9 comments drew harsh criticism from both lawmakers and relatives of fallen soldiers.

National Unity chairman and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz called Yosef’s words “a moral blow to the Israeli state and society.”

“Everyone should take part in the sacred right to serve and fight for our country, especially in this difficult time — our ultra-Orthodox brothers included.”

Illustrative: Protest calling for equal military service in Tel Aviv, March 14, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, chair of the centrist Yesh Atid party, said the remarks were “a disgrace and insult to IDF soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the defense of the country.”

In a statement, the far-right Religious Zionism party also criticized the chief rabbi’s comments. “After two thousand years of exile, we will never leave our country. A community that is willing to pay with its life for the Land of Israel will not give it up under any conditions,” it said.

Rabbi Tamir Granot, whose son Amitai was killed by an anti-tank missile on the Lebanon border in October, slammed Yosef. “You need to… go up to Mt. Herzl and apologize to my son, a yeshiva student and soldier,” said Granot in an interview to Ynet on Wednesday, referring to the Jerusalem military cemetery.

Illustrative: Israelis protest outside the Tel Shomer army base calling for an end to ultra-Orthodox Jews’ blanket exemption from the draft, March 5, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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

The IDF’s Personnel Directorate told a Knesset committee in February that some 66,000 young men from the ultra-Orthodox community, the fastest-growing sector of the population, 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.

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