Top rabbis order yeshiva students to ignore IDF call-ups amid brewing coalition crisis

Haredi parties escalate threats to bolt government if Netanyahu fails to pass ultra-Orthodox draft exemption law within weeks; Lapid demands PM condemn calls for refusal

Rabbi Dov Lando attends a meeting to discuss the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the military, Bnei Brak, April 5, 2024. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)
File: Rabbi Dov Lando attends a meeting to discuss the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the military, Bnei Brak, April 5, 2024. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

Prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis urged yeshiva students on Wednesday and Thursday to refuse any contact with the Israel Defense Forces, as the parties that represent their community escalated threats to leave the coalition if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to pass a law to exempt Haredi men from military service by the end of the Knesset’s summer session.

A leading Ashkenazi rabbi joined earlier calls by Sephardi rabbis for yeshiva students not to “show up at [military] draft offices at all.”

In a front-page article in the Yated Ne’eman daily — which is affiliated with the non-Hasidic Degel Hatorah faction of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party, a key coalition partner of Netanyahu — Rabbi Dov Lando charged that the Israeli judicial system had “declared war against the Torah world.”

“It is they who opened a front and came to change an arrangement that has existed for years, ordering the army to start the process of actually recruiting yeshiva members,” the rabbi wrote, referring to a recent landmark High Court ruling that ordered the government to immediately start drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the military.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced earlier this week that the military would begin the process of drafting ultra-Orthodox men starting next month, in accordance with the late June court ruling.

Encouraging Haredi yeshiva students not to report for IDF duty, Lando added: “Since the army’s hands are bound in iron chains by the judges, and any compliance with the courts’ edicts amounts to surrender in their war on God and his Torah, yeshiva members are therefore instructed to not show up at draft offices at all or answer any summons.”

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid called on the government to denounce Lando’s call, contrasting its near-silence on the matter to the outrage voiced by Netanyahu and his partners against “insubordination” when hundreds of elite reservists stopped volunteering for service last year in protest of the government’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox — photographed here through a metal fence — attend a rally against the conscription of Haredi yeshiva students to the military, in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on June 30, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“Where are all the ministers and MKs from the right who kicked and screamed against calls for refusal (which never happened)?” Lapid wrote on X. “Rabbi Lando’s words are the most explicit call for refusal so far. The prime minister and his ministers must explicitly condemn it — otherwise, they are neglecting the soldiers and abandoning the values ​​of the IDF and the state.”

Senior Sephardi rabbis also urged yeshiva students to refuse to enlist, writing on Wednesday that “reporting to the recruitment office is banned by the Torah” and that the “new and old ‘Haredi’ programs that have been established or are going to be established” — allowing ultra-Orthodox soldiers to serve without compromising their way of life — “are all strictly prohibited.”

“The more ‘kosher’ they are, the more dangerous they are as they pave the way to the army getting the Haredi public under its control, with all the severe consequences that come with that,” they wrote in a letter to young Haredi men, referring to the perceived danger of legitimizing assimilation into the secular public via the military.

The letter was signed by leading rabbis in the Sephardic community, three of whom are members of the Council of Torah Sages of the Shas coalition party. The text concludes with a call to “remove the evil government from the land,” indicating significant strife in the coalition following Gallant’s order to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in the coming weeks.

The rabbis claimed that the fact that the current conscription law contains quotas of Haredi draftees will lead to “the destruction of the Torah,” adding that it is irrelevant whether ultra-Orthodox conscripts actually study in yeshivas and that they are not willing to compromise on a single Haredi young man.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police during a protest against the drafting of Haredim to the military, on Route 4 outside of Bnei Brak, June 27, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While the ultra-Orthodox community typically grounds its opposition to conscription in the need to preserve Torah study, the rabbis’ refusal to condone the enlistment of even Haredi men who are not engaged in full-time Torah study indicates that the danger of secularization is among their main concerns.

The rabbis further called on all yeshiva heads to disobey the imminent conscription orders, saying that it was better to suffer the cessation of government funding and threat of imprisonment that draft-dodging would incur than see students enlist in the IDF, and adding that legal and spiritual assistance to refusers would be provided as necessary.

The religious leaders added that even reporting to conscription centers was forbidden, as that would constitute “providing prey to the teeth of those seeking to draft students with weak character.”

Ultra-Orthodox soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the IDF ‘Nahal Haredi’ unit, at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem on May 26, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Rabbi Meir Tzvi Bergman, an influential member of the rabbinical advisory panel steering UTJ, slammed Gallant’s announcement regarding the imminent conscription notices, forbidding Haredim to cooperate with them.

“One fool comes and issues recruitment orders. We have already said several times that we are obliged to give our souls for this.”

His comments on Wednesday echoed signs held at mass protests over the cancelation of draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students in recent months reading, “We will not enlist in the enemy army,” and “We will die rather than enlist.”

Also Wednesday, Agudat Yisrael, the Hasidic faction that together with Degel Hatorah makes up the UTJ party, reportedly threatened that it would leave the coalition if Netanyahu fails to get a draft law exempting Haredi men from military service passed by the end of the summer session, in two and a half weeks.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that all the ultra-Orthodox factions were enraged at Netanyahu’s failure to pass a draft law that would exempt them from military service and at what they see as his loss of control over the coalition.

In the wake of successive governments’ inability to deal with the issue, the High Court of Justice ruled last month that there was no legal basis for excluding Haredi men from the military draft, leading the Attorney General’s Office to instruct the IDF to immediately draft 3,000 Haredi young men.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men near a sign reading ‘army recruitment office’ during a protest against the drafting of Haredim to the military, in Jerusalem, May 1, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the Knesset’s summer session ends on July 28, and if a new draft law is not passed by then, it will have to wait until at least October when the winter session begins.

A bill recently revived from the previous Knesset would set the age of exemption from mandatory service for Haredi yeshiva students at 21 and “very slowly” increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

However, the Haredi parties are highly unlikely to find common ground with the other coalition parties to agree on the details of the legislation.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription is among the most contentious in Israeli public discourse. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe that military service is incompatible with their way of life and fear that those who enlist will be secularized. Many Israelis who do serve, however, say the decades-long arrangement of mass exemptions unfairly burdens them, a sentiment that has strengthened since the beginning of the war, which has seen over 300 soldiers killed on Israel’s various fronts as well as over 300,000 citizens called up to reserve duty.

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