ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Inside the government-funded group arranging IDF exemptions for yeshiva students

Israel’s wartime budget includes millions of shekels for the Vaad HaYeshivot, despite a manpower shortage forcing the army to extend reservists’ mandatory service period

Sam Sokol

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"

Ultra-Orthodox men study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva, in Jerusalem, on August 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva, in Jerusalem, on August 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Addressing the Knesset plenum last Monday, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid was angry, accusing the government of allocating millions of shekels for organizations facilitating military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox at the same time that many of Israel’s reserve troops have faced months of fierce battles in the Gaza Strip.

“There is NIS 8 million ($2.2 million) there for the Vaad HaYeshivot (Yeshiva Committee),” he complained, disparaging the Jerusalem-based nonprofit as an organization dedicated to “encouraging evasion of the IDF draft while people are doing 107 days of reserve duty because there are not enough soldiers and not enough fighters.”

“Is this your victory together?” Lapid demanded, referring to a popular wartime slogan. “Millions of shekels for evading the draft.”

Over 360,000 Israelis were called up for reserve duty in the wake of Hamas’s unprecedented assault on October 7, which left some 1,200 people dead and more than 250 in captivity in the Gaza Strip, and Israel’s military is struggling to maintain the necessary manpower to continue fighting in Gaza.

As part of this effort, IDF reservists’ mandatory service period has been extended and the army has begun recruiting some 1,300 Israelis currently enrolled in pre-army programs, national religious yeshivas, and community service programs — sparking protests and claims that the burden of military service was being applied unequally.

The government’s decision to draft national religious yeshiva students for the war generated even more backlash when it was defended in the Knesset by Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police as they protest against the arrest an ultra-Orthodox men who failed to comply with their army draft, in Jerusalem, September 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Addressing lawmakers’ concerns about the move, Porush asserted that the IDF needed more troops “to be able to fulfill its missions,” prompting critics to accuse the minister, who has long pushed for legislation exempting members of the ultra-Orthodox community from military service, of hypocrisy.

Despite a spike in Haredi enlistment following Hamas’s attack on October 7, there has not been a major shift in most ultra-Orthodox leaders’ or institutions’ approach to military service.

Porush’s support for the enlistment of non-Haredi yeshiva students stood in stark contrast to both the ultra-Orthodox claim that those studying Torah cannot fight because they provide critical spiritual protection and the government’s funding of the Vaad HaYeshivot.

According to Guidestar, a center that provides information on non-profit organizations in Israel, the mission of the Vaad, which receives more than 70 percent of its budget from the state, is to coordinate between ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and the Defense Ministry in matters of service deferments.

Similar, though lesser, budgets were also allocated to the Union of Hesder Yeshivas and the Union of Higher Zionist Yeshivas, both of which are part of the national-religious sector and represent institutions whose graduates are expected to go on to serve in the IDF, though for shorter stints than their secular peers.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community have long enjoyed exemptions from military service, which they see as a threat to their religious identity, explained Dr. Shuki Friedman, vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute.

“The role of this Vaad is to organize and support the yeshivas in recruiting the students and also instructing them on how to present themselves for recruitment and how to bypass obstacles and the army bureaucracy,” he said. “The role of this Vaad is not only to support the Haredim that study in the yeshivas but also to help the other Haredim who are not learning or hanging out or working — to prevent them from going to the army.”

As part of this work, the Vaad arranges for students to receive deferments without appearing at induction centers, advises them on paperwork and appeals to the heads of yeshivas to avoid expulsions of students to prevent them from being drafted.

A religious Jewish soldier is embraced by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family member after a swearing-in ceremony for the IDF Nahal Haredi unit, at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, May 26, 2012 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

This has been made possible both by the government’s decision last year not to enlist yeshiva students — despite the expiry of the current exemption framework — and millions of shekels in government funding, which rose from NIS 1.7 million ($465,000) in 2018 to NIS 3.7 million ($1 million) in 2022.

Unsurprisingly, the Vaad itself presents its role differently from how Lapid characterizes it, with the committee’s chairman, Rabbi Chaim Aharon Kaufman, arguing that it “isn’t ‘for’ or ‘against’ the army.”

In a 2017 interview with the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, Kaufman claimed that the Vaad’s “raison d’etre” was merely “to facilitate the unhindered Torah learning of anyone who wishes to do so.”

“It’s not an anti-Zionist institution,” agreed Ronen Katz, a spokesman for Shas MK Haim Biton, a minister within the Education Ministry.

“The state recognizes it and the yeshiva committee also recognizes the state,” he said, slamming what he called Lapid’s “demagoguery and half-baked nonsense.”

Dealing with the issue of exemptions requires significant overhead, which would have otherwise been the responsibility of the Defense Ministry, agreed UTJ MK Moshe Roth, pointing out that the government had funded the Vaad during Lapid’s term as prime minister.

“This is an organization that has been set up to serve a purpose. And that purpose is in the interest of the IDF. The IDF wanted that organization. They wanted to have one voice to speak for all yeshivas, to organize,” he said.

In other words, as long as the ultra-Orthodox are exempt from the military, it is necessary to have a body to coordinate between the government and the rabbis.

Rabbi Dov Landau, head of the Slabodka yeshiva in Bnei Brak delivers a lesson at the Mir Yeshiva, in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, September 19, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

However, a close look at the Vaad’s activities actually reveals a more nuanced picture than than the ones presented by both its detractors and its defenders, according to Gilad Malach, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

“The main goal is not encouraging evasion,” even if the Vaad is part of the ultra-Orthodox discourse on conscription legislation, he said.

“The evasion is according to the law, the system, even the army. [The authorities] need to decide which place is a yeshiva so this is the place that decides. But on the other hand, this is the [body] that organizes yeshivas [whose students] aren’t serving in the IDF, so the question is why the state needs to support such a committee.”

In a statement, the IDF spokesman’s office told The Times of Israel that “all recruitment and deferrals for every security service candidate, including candidates who belong to the ultra-Orthodox sector, are carried out by the IDF only.”

“It should be emphasized that the Vaad HaYeshivot has no influence on the recruitment procedure” and the army “does not recognize that the yeshiva committee acts contrary to the provisions of the law” by encouraging draft evasion, the IDF said.

Times of Israel staff and Gavriel Fiske contributed to this report.

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