UTJ’s Roth: ‘No actual benefit’ to Haredim in toppling government over yeshiva funds

MK says ultra-Orthodox parties hope Netanyahu can find ‘creative’ solution to Haredi enlistment in IDF before the High Court of Justice gives its final ruling on the matter

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"

MK Rabbi Moshe Roth attends a Knesset House Committee meeting, January 30, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
MK Rabbi Moshe Roth attends a Knesset House Committee meeting, January 30, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Despite increasingly heated rhetoric from politicians and rabbis, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties are highly unlikely to bolt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition over last week’s High Court of Justice ruling slashing funds for yeshivas, said United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Roth.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Sunday, the day before the court’s interim ruling came into effect, Roth explained that Netanyahu still has two months “to draft some kind of a law” on ultra-Orthodox conscription that would be at least minimally acceptable to the justices — after which a final decision could take several more months.

“So if we’re talking about Bibi’s government being in jeopardy, that’s only if he doesn’t do anything,” Roth explained, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “But if he’s making a law, he could have a good five months to go before something would happen [and] the religious parties would leave the government.”

And in the meantime, the Haredi parties are unlikely to bring down the government over a purely fiscal matter, he indicated.

United Torah Judaism currently has seven seats in the Knesset and Shas had 11, and their departure would leave the coalition without a majority.

On Monday morning, an interim order by the High Court of Justice barring the government from providing funds to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas for students eligible for IDF enlistment went into effect, effectively ending government funding for nearly 50,000 full-time Talmud students.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a road and clash with police near Bnei Brak during a protest against the enlistment of yeshiva students, April 1, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The court decision, issued last week, came after the government repeatedly delayed submitting a proposal to the court for plans to increase ultra-Orthodox military enlistment. The court is due to convene for its next hearing on the matter this May.

Netanyahu has reportedly told representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties that he would promote a private bill exempting yeshiva students from military conscription following the upcoming Knesset recess.

By taking the private bill route, Netanyahu may be able to bring the legislation to the Knesset floor without needing to win approval from the attorney general or members of his cabinet who have criticized his previous proposals as insufficient.

Roth has previously stated that while enlistment of yeshiva students is a red line, “the decision lies with the council of Torah elders,” which sets policy for the party.

And despite ultra-Orthodox lawmakers accusing the court of declaring “an all-out struggle” against Torah study and “imposing economic sanctions against those who chose to study the Holy Torah,” the guidance they have received from these rabbinic leaders has been to stay put in the short term.

This includes a directive from Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, the dean of Bnei Brak’s Slabodka yeshiva and a member of Degel Hatorah’s Council of Torah Sages, who advised the party’s MKs to delay pulling out “for the time being” and instead pursue all possible remedies from within the government.

At the same time, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, the leader of the large and influential Gur Hasidic sect — who wields significant influence in the Agudat Yisrael party as well as on Shas chairman Aryeh Deri — has indicated that the decisive factor in deciding to withdraw is the status of the yeshiva students themselves, rather than their canceled stipends.

“Without legal status for yeshiva students — we should withdraw from the government,” Alter was quoted as saying by the Walla news site.

Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter of the Gur Hassidic Dynasty attends a rally of United Torah Judaism party in Jerusalem ahead of the 2019 elections, April 8, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Together, the Degel HaTorah and Agudat Yisrael parties comprise the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism faction in the Knesset. Shas, which has said it will “examine its next steps” in the wake of the ruling and has reportedly sought the help of Arab lawmakers, represents Sephardic Jews.

According to the State Attorney’s Office, there are some 63,000 enrolled yeshiva students who are legally subject to the draft as of Monday but it seems unlikely that military police will begin actively enforcing conscription orders this week.

According to Roth, who has previously insisted that the IDF does not need to draft yeshiva students despite a wartime manpower shortage, the decision to leave the coalition is “a question of what’s better and what’s worse.”

“Leaving the coalition doesn’t really change their position… there’s no actual benefit if they topple it right now,” he said.

“There is only one thing would definitely topple the government and that’s if yeshiva students are drafted. As long as that doesn’t happen there’s no definite need to topple the government.”

Despite this, there is still a “lot of tension and Likud is to blame because they were dragging their feet” on passing a Haredi proposal for a quasi-constitutional Basic Law defining Torah study as a core state value roughly on par with IDF service.

An Israeli flag is set on fire by a Haredi teen during a Brothers in Arms protest in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, March 31, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

The passage of such a law would have prevented the High Court of Justice from challenging ultra-Orthodox service deferrals, he said.

However, despite anger at Likud, “there’s a war going on so having the government intact is the more responsible” path, Roth argued. “If we have Netanyahu come up with something creative, I think the Haredi parties will still stick with him.”

In fact, he asserted, the many ultra-Orthodox Israelis believe that they are actually “sacrificing by being part of this government,” because “if we had joined [National Unity chairman Benny] Gantz and [Yesh Atid head Yair] Lapid in a government we would not have had any problems with the budget, anything we wanted we would have gotten.”

As to why two of the strongest advocates for universal enlistment would have given the ultra-Orthodox what they wanted, Roth claimed that their current positions were merely political posturing meant to rouse their voters.

Asked about a recent poll by ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar HaShabbat which found that 63 percent of Haredim believe that those who do not learn full-time should enlist in the IDF during wartime, Roth replied that he believed the real number to be even higher.

However, this has not translated into a rise in enlistment because Haredim are scared of becoming secularized and the army needs to be “more open and flexible” in creating an appropriate environment for them, he said.

Dismissing claims that a significant number of yeshiva students are falsely registered in order to avoid the draft, Roth insisted that an expansion of units like the all-male, strictly kosher Nahal Haredi could help boost enlistment.

Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the haredi IDF 'Nahal Haredi' unit (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Religious Jewish soldiers attend a swearing-in ceremony as they enter the haredi IDF ‘Netzah Yehuda’ unit (photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

However, asked if the ultra-Orthodox parties are pushing for the opening of more Haredi units, Roth replied in the negative, arguing that this is a “secondary issue” that will only be dealt with after the exemptions for full-time yeshiva students are ensured.

Asked if taking such an approach could help relieve some of the pressure on the community from those pushing for universal enlistment, Roth — who claimed that he personally tried to enlist and was rejected in the mid-nineties — said that it wouldn’t make a difference.

“This is a ticket for Yesh Atid and [Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor] Liberman and even [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich,” he said. “These things are political tickets so why would they relent? It’s not something to solve. This is just for point scoring.”

Most Popular
read more: