Haredi leader Goldknopf on army draft: ‘You don’t want us and you don’t need us’

At event marking Bnei Brak centenery, UTJ chief wonders why ultra-Orthodox parties’ electoral achievements do not enable them to strike deals to avoid enlistment for their community

United Torah Judaism leader Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf in Tel Aviv on February 4, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
United Torah Judaism leader Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf in Tel Aviv on February 4, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

Leader of the United Torah Judaism party Yitzhak Goldknopf argued Sunday night that Israel does not need or want Haredi conscripts, while wondering whether ultra-Orthodox parties’ electoral victories did not give them the right to strike deals to avoid enlistment for their community.

Goldknopf, speaking at an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of Bnei Brak, a city whose population is mostly Haredi, said: “You still don’t understand us, why we say we live on the Torah, that without the Torah who knows where we’d be.”

Citing a tweet by former politician Haim Ramon, Goldknopf claimed that “four thousand Haredim asked to enlist since the beginning of the year — though that’s not good to hear — but you ruled out 3,300 of them. You don’t want us and you don’t need us. Why do you abuse us?” (Ramon in his tweet cited data from the Knesset, though he later acknowledged that some individuals had challenged the data as problematic.)

Goldknopf went on to ask: “Have we no worth, since we won elections? The attorney general says ‘This can’t be done, this can be done.’ It has nothing to do with her legally. Do we have no right in elections to negotiate and receive what we deserve?”

Israel has seen an intensifying public and legal debate over blanket ultra-Orthodox exemptions from the military draft, as the High Court of Justice considers multiple petitions demanding the immediate drafting of young Haredi men.

Ultra-Orthodox men of military age have been able to avoid being conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces for decades by enrolling in yeshivas for Torah study and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption. In 2017 the High Court ruled that mass exemptions to military service on a group basis are illegal and discriminatory. Successive governments have since that time tried and failed to formulate new legislation to settle the matter, while requesting repeated deferrals from the court.

However, justices have shown diminishing patience, and the need to fill the military’s manpower shortfalls has become far more acute since the outbreak of the war in Gaza and the threat of war on the Lebanese border.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, right, arrive for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The court ruled in March that the state must cease subsidizing Haredi yeshivas whose students are eligible for the draft, since the legal framework for doing so had expired. As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to deal with a severe political headache owing to the high priority Haredi political parties place on both yeshiva funding and military exemptions.

Lawmakers last week voted to apply “continuity” to a bill from the previous Knesset dealing with the military service of yeshiva students, reviving the contentious legislation, but it is not expected to solve the matter.

If eventually approved, the bill would lower the current age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students from 26 to 21 and “very slowly” increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription. The vote was to renew the legislative process where it left off, without having to start from scratch in the current session. The legislation will now advance to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to be prepared for the second and third readings it must pass to become law.

However, deep abiding disagreements over the bill between Haredi lawmakers and Likud members mean it is highly unlikely to advance through the committee stage.

Meanwhile the government on Sunday gave its backing to a draft bill raising the retirement age for IDF reservists, amid widespread criticism of its recruitment policies, which many Israelis believe place unequal burdens on different segments of the population.

The proposal, a Defense Ministry-backed “draft Security Service Law,” calls to extend for several more months a temporary measure raising the exemption age for reserve military service from 40 to 41 for soldiers and from 45 to 46 for officers due to an ongoing manpower shortage.

Specialists such as doctors and air crewmen will be required to continue serving until 50, instead of 49.

The current law raising the exemption age, which was initially passed by the Knesset late last year, is set to expire at the end of the month.

After canceling a scheduled cabinet discussion on the measure on Sunday morning following harsh public criticism, the government referred the matter to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. The committee approved sending the legislation to the Knesset, where it must pass three readings to become law.

If eventually approved by the Knesset, the draft bill would mark the second extension of the measure, which was intended as a stopgap solution to prevent a mass release from the reserves of those soldiers reaching the exemption age amid ongoing combat operations in Gaza.

It was first extended for four months by 44-33 a Knesset vote in late February.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset plenum vote on reviving an ultra-Orthodox military enlistment bill, early June 11, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite the Defense Ministry calling to extend the measure until the end of the year, the committee only supported a three-month extension, following objections by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara.

Baharav-Miara told the government on Sunday that the bill was legally unacceptable unless an immediate effort is made to draft extra military power “from the entire population,” a reference to the tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who receive blanket exemptions from military service.

The government has faced harsh public backlash over extending reservists’ service while appearing to take little action to draft the ultra-Orthodox.

While being careful not to comment on any current legislation or wade into politics, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi also endorsed integrating the ultra-Orthodox into the army during comments released on Sunday.

Speaking to soldiers during a visit to Gaza over the weekend, Halevi said that there “is now a clear need” for Haredi soldiers and that every new “ultra-Orthodox battalion [the army establishes] decreases the need for the deployment of many thousands of reservists.”

Over the past eight months, reservists have complained of economic and familial problems brought about by their long, repeated stints in the army. In many cases, spouses were left alone to care for children — sometimes with schools and kindergartens closed due to the war, depending on the area — and were unable to work for months.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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