Haredi minister warns he’ll quit if bill for draft exemption delayed

UTJ leader Yitzhak Goldknopf says law must advance when Knesset reconvenes for winter session later this month, stresses it’s his party’s only demand

Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf (right) arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf (right) arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on September 27, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, said Tuesday he would resign if the coalition does not advance a planned law facilitating blanket exemptions for the Haredi community from military service when the Knesset reconvenes later this month.

Goldknopf’s threat came as dueling sides within the coalition have indicated a willingness to call early elections over the divisive demand to award blanket exemptions for yeshiva students from military service, which is compulsory for most Jewish Israelis. Most Haredim do not currently serve, but the issue has long remained unregulated by clear laws amid a High Court of Justice demand to do so.

In 2017, the High Court invalidated the current conscription law, which gives sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. It has given the government a series of extended deadlines by which to legislate a new enlistment law and has allowed the Defense Ministry to rely upon the current, struck-down law until a replacement is passed.

“The moment the draft law doesn’t pass, I resign,” Goldknopf told the religious HaMechadesh news site. “You won’t even have to wait a minute.”

“There is nothing to discuss. I am obedient to the instructions of the Council of Torah Sages,” he said, referencing the governing body of his faction in UTJ, Agudat Yisrael.

The legislation is expected to be put forward on the Knesset floor when the Knesset reconvenes for its winter session on October 15.

“We aren’t asking for anything except for the draft law. The [judicial] reform, the reasonableness [law], everyone came and asked for something. I’m not asking for anything [else],” he said.

File: Students study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva in Jerusalem on July 25, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Goldknopf added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already requested that the bill’s passage be postponed for a third time since the coalition was sworn in.

“There was a first delay, a second delay, there won’t be a third. Members of Likud today are playing games and saying yes or no and have issues. They will have to take stock. In the moment of truth — what is good for you? Is it better for you to overthrow the government or is it better to support some yeshiva members who can sit and study?”

Last week, Goldknopf made a similar warning to Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs in a handwritten note, which was leaked to the media.

The note urged Fuchs to keep to his commitment that the bill would be brought up for a reading at the start of the winter session, with Goldknopf adding he also had the promise “in your handwriting.”

But coalition members have increasingly warned they will not support a blanket exemption.

At least six lawmakers for Likud have said in private that they won’t vote for the currently planned bill, Army Radio reported last month.

One Likud MK, Tally Gotliv, said so openly, telling Kan News: “I won’t vote for the draft law in its current form. This isn’t the time for a draft law… it doesn’t make any sense for me to give an exemption to a person who studies at a yeshiva for three years.”

Kan cited an unnamed coalition MK who warned that the draft law, not the ultra-divisive judicial overhaul, could end up being the government’s downfall. Another unnamed lawmaker was quoted as saying the public backlash against the draft law would also come from voters who otherwise support the government, since “the right doesn’t support draft-dodging.”

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.

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.

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.

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