Smotrich: Comments contradict the Torah; he should apologize

Chief Sephardic rabbi says ultra-Orthodox will leave Israel if forced into army

‘All these secular people don’t understand that without kollels and yeshivas, the army would not be successful,’ says Yitzhak Yosef, sparking backlash across the political spectrum

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef speaks at Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium on April 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef speaks at Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium on April 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef warned Saturday that ultra-Orthodox Jews will leave Israel en masse if the government ends exemptions of mandatory military enlistment enjoyed by the community.

“If they force us to go to the army, we’ll all move abroad,” Yosef said during a weekly lecture. “We’ll buy a ticket… We’ll go there.”

“The [biblical] tribe of Levi was exempted from the army,” he noted by way of comparison, referring to the biblical tribe from which the priesthood was drawn in Temple times. “They didn’t take them; absolutely not.”

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

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

Pressure is mounting for the coalition to end the exemption from military and national service for the ultra-Orthodox community, especially amid the war against Hamas.

The IDF’s Personnel Directorate told a Knesset committee last month 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.

In 2022, the Haredi population was 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 Israel’s National Economic Council.

Impassioned reactions poured in after Yosef’s remarks were publicized.

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.”

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

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

A police officer removing an ultra-Orthodox protester from the street, Route 4 near Bnei Brak, March 3, 2024. (Itai Ron/Flash90)

Avigdor Liberman, chair of Yisrael Beytenu, wrote: “Without duties, there are no rights.”

“It’s a shame that Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and the ultra-Orthodox hustlers continue to harm the security of Israel and act against halacha,” he said.

Even the coalition’s far-right Religious Zionism party lamented the remarks: “Drafting to the military: A good deed! We are grateful for the privilege of serving the people of Israel, learning Torah, and helping Israel in a time of need.”

“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.

Minister of Finance and Religious Zionist party chairman Bezalel Smotrich at the annual conference of the ‘Besheva’ group in Jerusalem, February 25, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Zionism party leader and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose cousin Amishar Ben-David was killed in Gaza on Friday, noted that his relative was “a son of Torah and a hero of Israel, who fought to defend the homeland and fell sanctifying the name of God, the people and the Land.” Referring to Yosef’s comments, Smotrich went on, “Comments to the contrary contradict the Torah, cause pain, and deepen the wounds, and I hope that he who uttered them will be wise enough to recognize his error, backtrack and apologize.”

The ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party said that “army service is a huge privilege for a Jew who defends himself in his country and a great deed.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a road during a protest against drafting of Haredi Jews to the IDF, Route 4 near Bnei Brak, March 3, 2024. (Itai Ron/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.

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 ultra-Orthodox 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 ultra-Orthodox men receive in order to study in yeshivas impractical.

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