Inside Story

Citing IDF’s manpower ‘surplus,’ Haredim reject post-October 7 draft equality push

Despite defense minister and IDF chief’s calls for more soldiers, UTJ lawmakers threaten to bolt coalition if even ‘one real yeshiva student has to close his Talmud’

Sam Sokol

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"

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

On Wednesday afternoon, members of the Knesset voted 36-61 to reject a universal military conscription bill proposed by Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman.

The failed legislation, which would have required all 18-year-olds to either enlist in the army or perform national service or face legal sanctions, was panned by Regional Cooperation Minister David Amsalem, who insisted that the government would carry out a dialogue with the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community and find a “real solution” that would not require yeshiva students to interrupt their studies.

While not Haredi himself, Amsalem’s rhetoric echoed that of his Haredi coalition partners, who continue to insist that despite the largest-ever call-up of reservists in Israel’s history following Hamas’s October 7 massacre, even a potential war on two fronts cannot justify the mass mobilization of yeshiva students.

Speaking with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, Deputy Knesset Speaker Moshe Roth, a member of the Haredi United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, warned that if even “one real yeshiva student has to close his Talmud, there is no government.”

“There is a surplus of manpower. The only difference before October 7 and after October 7 was the percentage of how many soldiers were in combat,” he insisted — contradicting Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s recent statement that “the army is in need of manpower now.”

Insisting that maintaining a large base of full-time scholars was “vitally important to the Jewish people,” Roth asserted that “as long as there is no absolute national security requirement” for more soldiers, there is no need recruit from the yeshivas.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Roth attends a party faction meeting in the Knesset, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Haredi men of military age have been able to avoid the draft for decades by enrolling for study in yeshivas and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption.

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 to some taking to the streets this week to declare that they would “die rather than enlist.”

“If you see that the army is bringing in people from Army Radio or education programs or from the army bands, that would be an indication that there is more need for manpower on the front or in combat units. But that’s not the case,” Roth asserted.

On Thursday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi called drafting Haredim “the need of the hour.”

While there was a surplus in the IDF prior to October 7, the attack fundamentally changed the army’s manpower requirements, said Dr. Eran Shamir-Borer, director of the Center for National Security and Democracy at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Israel is now “in a process of redefining its security and defense doctrine” and while its prior force posture was considered sufficient, both the “immediate and direct needs of the war” as well as the necessity of bolstering border security going forward mean that “there is definitely a need” to boost recruitment, Shamir-Borer said.

Torah is a missile

Many of the defenders of the status quo have explicitly equated Torah study with serving in the armed forces, insisting that those studying Torah must not be drafted because they provide critical spiritual protection, and declaring that every page of Talmud learned “is a missile.”

“The way to help is to study Torah,” Rabbi Meir Tzvi Bergman, an influential member of the rabbinical advisory panel steering UTJ, recently told The New York Times. “No one can give up on the Torah.”

Speaking on Saturday evening, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef declared that those who learn Torah are 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 declared.

Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, the government has called up a total of 287,000 reservists, announced the early draft date of some 1,300 members of pre-army programs, and pushed to significantly increase both conscripts and reservists’ periods of service.

That latter plan, presented by the defense establishment last month, generated a fierce backlash among lawmakers from across the political spectrum and prompted multiple legislative pushes to end the de facto exemptions for the Haredim.

According to the IDF’s Personnel Directorate, some 66,000 young men from the Haredi community received an exemption from military service over the past year, reportedly an all-time record.

Competing plans

Arguing that the burden of military service was being applied unequally, Liberman, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, and National Unity ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot — the latter two former IDF chiefs — have all promoted competing programs to expand the draft.

While both Lapid and Liberman believe in imposing financial sanctions against those who eschew service, their approaches were otherwise radically different, with Liberman insisting on the immediate enlistment of all Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians in either military or alternate national service.

“We are in a much more complex and difficult situation” following October 7 “and therefore the demand for a conscription law is not a spiteful proposal,” Liberman argued in the Knesset plenum on Wednesday, calling on his colleagues to “rise above all political interests and understand that these are basic security interests.”

“There can no longer be a story of goals and quotas,” he declared in a veiled criticism of Lapid, whose proposal relies on a quota system to mobilize previously exempt yeshiva students.

MK Avigdor Liberman speaks during a plenum session at the Knesset, March 6, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked why his party did not collaborate with Yesh Atid in order to boost the legislation’s chances, Yisrael Beytenu MK Evgeny Sova argued efforts to recruit the necessary number of soldiers to cover the army’s manpower shortage could not be limited only to the ultra-Orthodox.

“We presented our position,” he said.

And despite the legislation failing in its preliminary hearing in the Knesset, a spokesman for Yisrael Beytenu promised to continue submitting legislation on the matter and promoting it “in every possible way.”

Lapid’s bill, which has yet to come up for a vote, reflects a more gradual approach, requiring yeshivas to meet steadily rising annual quotas for enlistment in order to maintain their budgets.

The number of full-time Torah students given deferrals during any given year would be capped at 2,000, while those in yeshiva would be provided with incentives to train for their eventual integration into the workforce.

An outline but not a bill

Gantz and Eisenkot’s proposal has not been submitted as draft legislation, unlike those of Lapid and Liberman, and remains, as presented, merely an outline.

The pair have called for the establishment of a “unified recruitment directorate” to oversee exemptions, although all Israelis would ultimately be required to perform some form of national service after high school.

Gantz did not propose specific quotas of Haredi recruits but instead indicated that the number should increase gradually year-over-year — and said that while most Haredim would be drafted under the plan, there would still remain an “elite who will continue to study.”

While the current status of the Gantz-Eisenkot proposal remains unclear, Gallant announced last week that he would only back legislation settling the matter if it is endorsed by the two centrist ministers.

Soldiers study religious texts in the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox ‘Netzah Yehuda’ unit at the Peles Military Base in the northern Jordan Valley, August 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Gallant’s position is likely to put to bed any chance of the coalition being able to pass a Haredi-friendly bill without reaching across the aisle to those opposed to large-scale exemptions.

This political impasse takes on even more significance in light of last week’s High Court of Justice order requiring the government to explain why it should not annul a government resolution passed in June 2023 that instructed the IDF not to draft ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students for a limited time while the Knesset formulated and passed new legislation on the matter.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, without an extension to the resolution, the state will not be legally entitled to continue exempting yeshiva students from military conscription and will need to start enlisting them on April 1.

Searching for compromise

Representatives of the United Torah Judaism party are currently engaged in internal coalition talks in order “to find a compromise” that would protect those actively learning in yeshivas, Roth told The Times of Israel, echoing other ultra-Orthodox politicians — including UTJ leader Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf — who have expressed a willingness to discuss the enlistment of Haredi young men who were not scholars.

“There’d be a difference between yeshiva students and non-yeshiva students. Along those lines would be a compromise,” he said.

“These yeshiva students [should] be the last on the list to enlist unless there is an actual definite danger, a definite need for them to enlist. That’s the position that UTJ has,” Roth added.

Asked how that was any different from the current status quo under which those not studying are legally obligated to serve, Roth explained that there are currently “many that are registered in the yeshiva” even when they are no longer students and “if the army wants to go after these, that would be the compromise.”

Turning to how his party will respond if the April 1 deadline passes without a new arrangement, Roth replied that it was Netanyahu’s problem.

“Whoever is interested in keeping the coalition working and not toppling the government will have to come up with something.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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