Haredi minister presses government to keep its word on army draft exemptions

Goldknopf leaves note on cabinet secretary’s cabinet papers reminding him of promise to work on legislation in coming Knesset winter session

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)
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)

A senior ultra-Orthodox cabinet minister warned the government Wednesday to keep its word on advancing a planned law facilitating blanket exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox community from military service, leaving a handwritten note on the cabinet table as a reminder.

Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, leader of the United Torah Judaism party, penned the note after the cancellation of a meeting of coalition party chiefs that was supposed to discuss the legislation.

Dueling sides within the ruling bloc have indicated a willingness to call early elections over the divisive demand to enable all members of the ultra-Orthodox community, also called Haredim, to avoid army service, which is compulsory for most Jewish Israelis. Most Haredim men, but not all, currently do not serve.

Goldknopf addressed the short missive to Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs and reminded him of his assurance that a draft bill will be brought to the Knesset for a reading on October 15, the first day of the parliament’s coming winter session.

The note urged Fuchs to keep to his word, with Goldknopf adding he also has the promise “in your handwriting.”

A photo of the note, placed on top of other cabinet papers, was leaked to the media.

The Walla outlet reported that Goldknopf was annoyed the forum was canceled, as he wanted to use the opportunity to raise the topic of a commitment by the ruling Likud party to advance the draft bill.

Fuchs has not yet distributed a version of the bill that will be presented to the Knesset, the report said, and Haredi parties fear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is aiming to slow down the legislation.

MK Ohad Tal of the coalition’s far-right Religious Zionism party tweeted it was “unthinkable” to legislate a law that grants a general exemption to the Haredim. In a rebuke, Tal further said the debate was “too important and serious” to be conducted using “photos to media.”

Opposition MK Avigdor Liberman, leader of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party and a leading advocate for drafting Haredim, responded to Goldknopf’s note, tweeting, “This is what blackmail looks like.”

He urged members of Netanyahu’s Likud party to not back the bill, calling it an “evasion law.”

According to previous Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu has pledged to the ultra-Orthodox parties that a legislative memorandum for the draft bill will be previewed in the Knesset’s upcoming winter session in October.

In August, Goldknopf indicated to a Haredi news outlet that his party is prepared to topple the government if the draft law is not legislated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, and Government Secretary Yossi Fuchs, right, at the cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The government’s tentative proposal would lower the age of final exemption from the army from the current 26 to 23 or 21.

While soldiers are generally drafted from age 18, many yeshiva students claim academic deferments and are thought to remain in religious study programs longer than they otherwise would in order to dodge the draft until they reach the age at which they can be permanently exempted. By lowering the permanent exemption age, the government hopes to encourage those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.

The Haredi population of Israel overwhelmingly opposes performing mandated national civil or military service, seeing it as a way for secular forces to potentially draw away its members. Some more extreme elements in the Haredi community have protested violently against military conscription.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice invalidated a conscription law that gave sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. A series of extended deadlines by which to legislate a new enlistment law expired at the end of July. In turn, Gallant ordered the IDF in June to not draft ultra-Orthodox men until March 31, 2024. By then, the coalition expects that a bill exempting the ultra-Orthodox will have passed.

Channel 12 reported that the coalition leaders forum was canceled because the government is instead focusing on a High Court of Justice hearing, scheduled for Thursday, on petitions against a recently passed law that blocks the court from potentially ordering the prime minister to recuse himself from office. The law, part of the government’s planned drastic overhaul of the judiciary, could lead to a constitutional crisis should the coalition refuse to accept a court ruling on it.

In addition, the network said the forum was aborted due to tensions between coalition members and far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir over his plans to hold a gender-segregated prayer meeting in Tel Aviv in response to incidents earlier this week when secular activists disrupted similar prayer gatherings as being discriminatory against women. Amid criticism from within the coalition, Ben Gvir eventually canceled his event.

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