Saying blanket IDF exemption ‘needs to end,’ Lapid demands ultra-Orthodox enlistment

‘We need a lot more soldiers. The army is too small for all its challenges,’ opposition leader says of government’s recently unveiled military service bill

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"

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 13, 2024. (Sam Sokol)
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid at a press conference in Tel Aviv, February 13, 2024. (Sam Sokol)

Declaring that the old status quo is unsustainable in the aftermath of Hamas’s October 7 attack, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid on Thursday demanded that the government begin to draft the ultra-Orthodox in order to ensure “equality of the burden” in national service.

Speaking at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Lapid called on members of the coalition, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, to oppose the government’s recently unveiled military service bill, calling the debate over the legislation “the moment of truth for Israeli society.”

“We need a lot more soldiers. The army is too small for all its challenges,” he said, arguing that lawmakers “cannot put politics before security.”

Lapid was responding to an IDF plan being pushed by the government, which would increase the amount of time conscripts and reservists serve in the military in order to make up manpower shortages — without any concurrent moves to end de facto blanket exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.

The ultra-Orthodox have long enjoyed exemptions from military service, seeing integration with the secular world as a threat to their religious identity and community continuity.

Appealing directly to ministers Gadi Eisenkot and Benny Gantz of the National Unity party, Lapid declared that it was impossible for the two former IDF chiefs of staff to “continue to sit in a government that will pass this.”

Gadi Eisenkot and Benny Gantz are seen at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, February 16, 2015, as the former prepared to take over from the latter as IDF chief of staff. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“If we don’t learn to live here together, we will die here together,” he says, defining “together” as meaning “that we all have the same duties and the same rights.”

Rather than work to enlist the ultra-Orthodox, who make up a critical part of his coalition, Netanyahu has increased their social benefits so that they do not feel any economic pressure to further integrate into Israeli society, Lapid alleged.

“I’m calling out to our ultra-Orthodox brothers: It cannot be that you don’t see what this law will do to Israeli society,” he continued, lashing out at what he described as the “automatic response” of Haredi politicians who claim efforts to enlist yeshiva students come from a place of hatred.

Addressing the argument that there is no way to force the ultra-Orthodox to enlist, Lapid asserted that “we will not send tanks to Bnei Brak,” but rather that economic incentives must be created by linking “rights and obligations.”

“We will build a society here where everyone together bears the burden, where ultra-Orthodox and secular and religious people not only fight and die together, but also live together out of mutual respect. A society where secular children also study the Bible in school, because it is their heritage, and ultra-Orthodox children also study math and English, so that they can support themselves,” he said.

Asked how he can overcome the ultra-Orthodox parties’ key position as kingmakers in the coalition, Lapid told The Times of Israel that “the entire country has changed” in the wake of October 7.

“We are not the same people that we were before. This is something larger than everyone,” he said. “And we need to acknowledge the fact that we cannot go on the way it used to be, because the challenges we have are different, the army we need is different, therefore we need to draft the Haredim. This is the number one priority now.”

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)

Under the government’s plan, the terms for male mandatory army service and female soldiers in combat and other special roles would be increased to three years. Since 2015, men have served two years and eight months, and women currently serve for two years.

The IDF also plans to raise the age for retirement from reserve duty to 45 for regular reservists, 50 for officers and 52 for those serving in special roles. The amount of time required by reservists to serve per year would also go up under the plans.

Since the war broke out on October 7, the IDF has called up a total of 287,000 reservists, marking the largest-ever call-up of reservists in Israel’s history. Many of them have already been released from duty, but there are wide expectations that some of those will be called back up as fighting persists in Gaza and war looms on the northern border.

Lawmakers from both the opposition and coalition have said the increased burden of military service should fall on the Haredi community rather than being added on to those already serving. Lawmakers have also objected to the amended 2024 budget’s allocation of millions of shekels for an organization facilitating military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox.

In a letter to Netanyahu on Tuesday, Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli and lawmakers Moshe Saada and Dan Illouz declared that it was unbearable that “certain groups in society assume the burden of security… while other groups… continue their routine lives.”

As such, the current legislation, while necessary because of the war, should only be passed as a temporary measure limited to one year, the three Likud lawmakers asserted, adding that while coercion cannot succeed in drafting the ultra-Orthodox, a combination of dialogue and the reallocation of national resources to taxpayers “who bear the national burden” could serve to change the status quo.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, August 16, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Increased ultra-Orthodox participation in the military was also floated by Welfare Minister Ya’akov Margi of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party on Monday.

In an interview with the Haredi news website Kikar Hashabbat, Margi said that while full-time yeshiva students should not be required to perform military service, members of the Haredi community not engaged in full-time Torah study should be drafted.

“I can’t convince any mother whose son is on the front, who hasn’t been sleeping day and night for several months… why [an] ultra-Orthodox boy doesn’t enlist,” he declared, adding that he believes that those who are not enrolled in yeshiva can even be enlisted “by force.”

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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