Lapid advances bill to enlist ultra-Orthodox, demanding they share IDF burden

Opposition leader calls on defense minister to withdraw government bill lengthening enlistment period to make up for manpower shortages, says IDF must be ‘real people’s army’

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"

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset on February 19, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid leads a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset on February 19, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following widespread calls to end the ultra-Orthodox community’s de facto exemption from military service, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid on Monday submitted a new version of a draft law under which those who evade military or civil service will no longer be eligible for state funding.

“This law means one simple thing: everyone is equal before the law. Everyone protects the country. Everyone contributes to the country. There is not one sector that is released [from responsibility] because it is needed in the coalition,” Lapid told reporters ahead of his Yesh Atid party’s weekly faction meeting in the Knesset.

“The new law will be clear and simple: those who evade will not receive money. Those who do not serve in the army or civil service will not receive allowances from the state,” he declared, arguing that the legislation “will lead to a real equality of the burden.”

The issue of ultra-Orthodox exemptions from Israel’s mandatory draft has received renewed attention in recent weeks after the IDF and government earlier this month proposed changes to the security service and reserve service laws, which would see the amount of time conscripts and reservists serve increased significantly.

The plan is meant to address manpower shortages caused by the war in Gaza and hostilities on the northern border; the army called up a total of 287,000 reservists in the immediate wake of the October 7 attack, marking the largest-ever mobilization in Israel’s history.

The ultra-Orthodox have long enjoyed exemptions from military service, protesting or refusing draft orders and seeking to enshrine the exemption in law. Many in the Haredi world view army service and wider integration with the secular world to be a threat to their religious identity and the continuity of insular community traditions.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, August 16, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

On Monday, Lapid, who has previously complained that the government is putting “politics before security,” likewise argued that if the ultra-Orthodox were drafted into the army there would be no need for the government’s planned changes, declaring that “if they are recruited, there is no need to extend mandatory service.”

Writing to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday, Lapid called on the former general to remove the government’s bill lengthening enlistment terms from the agenda so that the IDF can be a “real people’s army.”

“It is impossible to bear the fact that there are tens of thousands of families in Israel who do not sleep at night because of fear. Terrified by a knock on the door. Every day there are dead, every day there are wounded, and only one sector gets an exemption,” he wrote.

Israeli reservists pose with a dog they brought out of Gaza in December 2023. (Courtesy of Glass Walls)

“It won’t work anymore. Not after October 7th.”

IDF reservists’ mandatory service period has already been temporarily extended by the Knesset, and the army has begun an early draft of some 1,300 Israelis currently enrolled in pre-army programs, national religious yeshivas, and community service programs.

Many, including cabinet ministers and coalition MKs allied with ultra-Orthodox parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, have demanded the ultra-Orthodox begin to enlist to make up the manpower shortages.

In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month, Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli and Likud lawmakers Moshe Saada and Dan Illouz declared that it was unbearable that “certain groups in society assume the burden of security… while other groups… continue their routine lives.”

Even Welfare Minister Ya’akov Margi of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party called for limited Haredi recruitment, telling the Kikar Hashabbat website that members of the Haredi community not engaged in full-time Torah study should be drafted “by force.”

“I can’t convince any mother whose son is on the front, who hasn’t been sleeping day and night for several months… why [an] ultra-Orthodox boy doesn’t enlist,” Margi stated.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have long pushed for legislation formally codifying their constituents’ exemption from military service, which has been among the most contentious issues in society over the last two decades.

Recruiting the ultra-Orthodox is widely considered a political third rail for Netanyahu, who relies on the support of the Haredi parties in order to maintain his coalition.

Despite the expiry of the current exemption framework, the government last year decided not to enlist yeshiva students and its proposed amended wartime budget for 2024 includes millions of shekels for an ultra-Orthodox nonprofit that coordinates exemptions for yeshiva students.

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