ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Plan to extend soldiers’ stints sparks calls to end ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions

Coalition lawmakers join opposition in pushing for Haredi community to share burden of military service rather than continuing to give them a pass; Gantz urges Arab service as well

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

An IDF plan to increase the amount of time conscripts and reservists serve in the military as it prepares for a long war in the Gaza Strip generated fierce backlash among lawmakers from across the political spectrum on Thursday, with many renewing calls to end the de facto exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox community in order to make up manpower shortages.

The proposed changes, unveiled Wednesday, include raising terms for male mandatory army service and female soldiers in combat and other special roles to three years. Since 2015, men have served two years and eight months. Women currently serve for two years.

The IDF also plans to raise the age for retirement from reserve duty to 45 for regular reservists, 50 for officers and 52 for those serving in special roles. The amount of time required by reservists to serve per year would also go up under the plans.

Lawmakers from both the opposition and coalition said the increased burden on military service should fall on the Haredi community rather than being added on to those already serving. The coalition includes ultra-Orthodox parties opposed to forced conscription,

“The ultra-Orthodox public is precious and beloved and contributes much to the State of Israel and now it is essential that it take a more significant part in defense and security tasks as well,” tweeted Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

Smotrich, whose Religious Zionism party’s base is largely composed religiously observant nationalists, said that this community “proves that it is possible to combine Torah study and observance… together with military service at the front.”

In a nod to his coalition partners from the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, Smotrich called for raising the ultra-Orthodox enlistment rate via “dialogue and discussion” rather than by coercion.

The ultra-Orthodox have long enjoyed exemptions from military service, seeing integration with the secular world as a threat to their religious identity and community continuity.

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.

“The thought that young people will extend their service for three years, while their peers will not serve a single day, in military or civilian service, is intolerable,” Minister Chili Tropper of the National Unity party wrote on Facebook.

“The truth must be told: the fallen do not come from all sectors,” he wrote. “Indeed, many in the ultra-Orthodox sector volunteer, study, pray in memory of the fallen, visit the wounded… but they do not share the burden of service.”

Since war broke out on October 7, the IDF has called up a total of 287,000 reservists, marking the largest-ever call-up of reservists in Israel’s history. Many of them have already been released from duty, but there are wide expectations that some of those will be called back up as fighting persists in Gaza and war looms on the northern border.

Military officials have touted an increase in ultra-Orthodox volunteering for duty in the immediate aftermath of the October 7 massacre, though the numbers have been relatively small and there has not been a major shift in most ultra-Orthodox leaders’ or institutions’ approach to rejecting military service.

“On October 7, many Israelis stood up and volunteered without asking questions. Among them were ultra-Orthodox Jews who sought to enlist in the IDF,” said Minister Benny Gantz (National Unity), calling for “an Israeli service law, which will gradually include ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens.”

The National Unity Party joined the government to have a hand in managing the war, but has steered clear of participating in other coalition matters.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) and war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz in northern Gaza’s Beit Hanoun, December 23, 2023. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party stated that the previous status quo “cannot continue.”

MK Moshe Saada, also of Likud, called on Israelis to draft a new social contract in which “more sectors of the public put their shoulder to the wheel” when it comes to military service.

“The IDF’s new plan makes it clear to us by contrast that the burden of security falls on the shoulders of a small percentage of the people,” he tweeted.

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 — sparking protests and claims that the burden of military service was being applied unequally.

MK Tally Gotliv (Likud) called for the reserve service extension proposal to be scrapped, calling for “understanding that everyone is equal in carrying the burden.”

IDF troops operate in Gaza in a handout image cleared for publication on January 12, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Ultra-Orthodox leaders did not address the hubbub, though UTJ MK Moshe Gafni on Thursday rejected comments from party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf a day earlier in which he blithely sought to distance Haredi politicians from anything to do with the war.

“We all bear responsibility, even today,” Gafni said at a cornerstone-laying ceremony at an educational institution in the northern town Karmiel. “Whoever says the situation is good — the situation is not good! I, like my colleagues in the government, bear responsibility.”

Responding to the IDF’s proposal on Thursday, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid complained that the service extension was being advanced by the government “in the middle of the war, when fighters are being killed every day [and] when the reservists are collapsing financially.”

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

“No Haredi will enlist, no Haredi will risk his life, no Haredi will suffer financially,” he charged, in a sentiment echoed by hawkish opposition MK and Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman, who stated that the proposal “discriminates and harms the unity of the people.”

“The regular and reserve soldiers will serve more than others who are not serving today and will continue not to serve,” he said, calling on former IDF chiefs of staff and National Unity ministers Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot to resign if the bill is approved.

“How will people in the government who do not know what service is vote on extending service in the IDF?” asked Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, the former head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate.

He was likely referring to ministers belonging to the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who was not accepted for compulsory service in the IDF because of far-right activism in his youth.

Illustrative: Haredi soldiers.

Despite the widespread criticism of the ultra-Orthodox, Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu (Otzma Yehudit) celebrated the boost in Haredi enlistment since October 7, calling it an “unprecedented mobilization.”

“The attempt to re-educate them by force will only lead to hatred and alienation,” he tweeted.

War erupted between Israel and Hamas with the terror group’s October 7 massacre, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages of all ages — mostly civilians — while committing brutal atrocities including mass sexual violence.

Vowing to destroy the terror group and secure the return of the hostages, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign in Gaza.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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