Opposing blanket exemption for Haredim, IDF chief says it must remain ‘people’s army’

As Netanyahu discusses proposal to exempt ultra-Orthodox men from service at a younger age, Halevi says ‘our strength is greater’ when army is united, heterogeneous

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF chief Herzi Halevi speaks to troops ahead of a military march, April 20, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF chief Herzi Halevi speaks to troops ahead of a military march, April 20, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi on Thursday morning said there is “no substitute” for the so-called “people’s army” model —  one in which all Israelis are meant to serve —  amid plans by the government to lower the age at which ultra-Orthodox men can gain permanent exemptions from drafting to the army.

“The people’s army model has proven beyond any doubt, for 75 years, that there is and must not be a substitute for it. This is the secret of the IDF’s strength, this is the secret of a nation’s strength,” Halevi said ahead of a march held to commemorate Israel’s 75th Independence Day.

“Today we are marching together, serving in the standing army and in the reserves, from all parts of the IDF and from the whole spectrum of roles, from the various hues of the state and from the entire range of opinions and beliefs, to emphasize that together, our strength is greater,” he added.

Speaking at the same event, the chief of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, said that “despite our differences and diversity, we will be able to face any challenge and enemy.”

“We will march together, shoulder to shoulder, brothers in arms, partners in the journey, united for the purpose of defense of the country, defense of its residents. We will do this with the understanding that our cohesion is our operational strength,” Bar said.

The IDF has indicated its opposition to plans discussed by the government earlier this week that would essentially give Haredim a blanket ban from army service, stating that universal conscription by drafting Israelis from all parts of society is of utmost importance.

The government’s latest tentative proposal, discussed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some coalition partners on Sunday, 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 normally would in order to dodge the draft until they reach the age of final exemption. By lowering the permanent exemption age, the government hopes to spur those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda battalion are seen studying at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has been reported to support setting the age of exemption at 23, but on condition that another bill is passed that would give additional benefits to soldiers and veterans, handing combat soldiers and others in essential roles a significant pay raise while soldiers in non-essential positions would serve less time.

It was unclear where the budget for those initiatives would come from.

An expert told The Times of Israel on Monday that the government plans are likely to be rejected by the High Court of Justice.

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.

Amid intentions by the government to give Haredim an earlier exemption from army service, the IDF said it would continue to send enlistment letters to ultra-Orthodox males who turn 18.

The IDF said it would continue to provide special draft routes for ultra-Orthodox Jews. In practice, however, only around 1,000 Haredim are drafted to the IDF each year, out of around 11,000 ultra-Orthodox males who turn 18 each year.

Critics say the IDF and government have not done enough to increase the number of ultra-Orthodox troops.

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