‘We prefer dying to serving in the IDF’: Israel in battle over Haredi conscription

As troops fight in Gaza and are stationed on the northern border, a third battleground is taking shape over drafting the ultra-Orthodox, an issue that could bring down the coalition

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men after clashes during a protest outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, as a group of soldiers stands behind them, March 4, 2024 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox men after clashes during a protest outside the army recruitment office in Jerusalem, as a group of soldiers stands behind them, March 4, 2024 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

As Israel wages a prolonged war in Gaza, broad exemptions from mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox men have reopened a deep divide in the country and rattled the government coalition, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fellow war cabinet members staunchly opposed to his proposed new conscription law.

By the end of the month, the government must present legislation aimed at increasing recruitment among the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community. As the deadline approaches, public discourse has grown increasingly toxic — a departure from demonstrations of unity early in the war.

Netanyahu’s government so far has survived the public angst sparked by Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack that ignited the war, but the draft issue has put him in a bind. The collapse of the three-member war cabinet would undermine the country’s stability at a sensitive time in the fighting. But a loss of the Haredi parties’ support would bring down his hardline coalition and plunge the country into new elections as he and his Likud party are badly trailing in opinion polls.

“Politically, this is one of the most concrete threats to the government,” said Gilad Malach, an expert on the Haredim at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Most Jewish Israeli men are required to serve nearly three years followed by years of reserve duty. Many Jewish women serve two years. But the politically powerful Haredim, who make up roughly 13% of Israeli society, have traditionally received exemptions if they are studying full-time in a yeshiva, or religious seminary. The exemptions — and the government stipends many yeshiva students receive through age 26 — have infuriated the wider general public.

The Supreme Court has ruled the current system discriminatory and given the government until April 1 to present a bill and until June 30 to pass it.

Members of Brothers and Sisters in Arms and Bonot Alternativa (Women Building an Alternative) protest Israel’s exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews from mandatory military service, near the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Minister Benny Gantz — who with Netanyahu comprise the war cabinet — say the prime minister’s proposed law doesn’t go far enough toward increasing the number of Haredi young men who will join the army. Critics say some proposed aspects, such as raising the age of permanent exemption — now apparently dropped — could even depress the numbers.

Gantz, Netanyahu’s top political rival, said the premier’s outline for a Haredi draft law was a “red line” and a threat to national cohesion, and threatened to exit the coalition if the legislation is approved. Gallant said he’d support a new law only with the support of Gantz and more centrist members of the country’s emergency wartime government.

The government is composed of ultra-Orthodox and religious ultranationalist parties that were joined in the early days of the war by Gantz’s centrist National Unity party as a show of unity in the aftermath of October 7.

Since the beginning of the war against Hamas in Gaza and hostilities on the northern border, the government has called up a total of 287,000 reservists, announced earlier-than-planned draft dates for some 1,300 members of pre-army programs, and pushed to significantly increase both conscripts’ and reservists’ periods of service.

Many of the reservists have since been released, but will be expected to return to active duty in coming months, and the increased reserve duty and talk of lengthening mandatory service have deepened public anger.

Among the Jewish majority, mandatory military service is largely seen as a melting pot and rite of passage. The Haredim say that integrating into the army will threaten their generations-old way of life and that their dedication to Torah study protects Israel as much as a strong army.

“We prefer dying to serving in the Israeli army,” said Yona Kruskal, 42, a father of 11 and full-time seminary student, as he blocked traffic in Jerusalem with about 200 others last week in one of the frequent protests against the conscription law. “There’s no way you can force us to go to the army, because we are hell-bent that the army and religion contradict one another.”

As the Haredim scuffled with police at the protest, other passersby berated them, chanting “Shame! Shame!”

“My friends are sitting in Gaza while you’re here, sitting on the ground,” one man yelled. A woman screamed at the protesters that her son was serving in Gaza to protect them.

Police officers scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during a protest against a potential new draft law which could end their exemptions from military service in Jerusalem, March 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Oren Shvill, a founder of Brothers in Arms, a protest group representing reserve soldiers who oppose Netanyahu, said the ultra-Orthodox are benefitting from the army’s protection without themselves serving. “There’s one law for everyone, and it should be enforced equally,” he said.

Economists say the system is unsustainable. With its high birthrate, the Haredi community is the fastest-growing segment of the population, at about 4% annually. Each year, roughly 13,000 Haredi males reach the conscription age of 18, but less than 10% enlist, according to the Knesset’s State Control Committee, which recently held a hearing on the matter.

“One of the things that in the past was debatable and now is much more clear is that we need more soldiers,” said Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu aide, Knesset member and cabinet minister who just finished four months of reserve duty as commander of a special forces unit. He said the burden of service should be shared equally among all segments of the population.

The shock of the October 7 attack initially appeared to ignite some enthusiasm among the Haredim  to serve, but no large enlistment materialized.

Yeshiva students study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva, in Jerusalem on July 25, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The debate has long divided Israel, and a string of court decisions have repeatedly found the system unjust. But lawmakers, under pressure from Haredi parties, have repeatedly stalled. It remains unclear whether Netanyahu will be able to do so again.

The rift over exemptions was exacerbated last year when Netanyahu’s government pressed ahead with an overhaul of the legal system with the support of Haredi lawmakers who sought to override court decisions on conscription. The government froze the overhaul after the war broke out.

The army has attempted to accommodate the Haredim by creating separate units that allow them to maintain religious practices, including minimizing interaction with women.

Ephraim Luff, 65, a full-time yeshiva student in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, dismissed such efforts, saying the men who enlist in these units are not “real Haredim.”

“The army is the final stage of Israeli education to make people into secular Israelis and to disconnect them from their Jewish heritage,” said Luff, who described how one of his eight children “strayed from the path” of full-time learning and served in the army as a truck driver for a year and a half.

Protesters outside a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on the government’s drafting of ultra-Orthodox men, on February 26, 2024 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

One of the country’s two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef, said this month that the Haredim “will all move abroad” if forced to enlist. The comment drew both condemnation, for encouraging Israelis to leave during a national crisis, and ridicule, because many secular Israelis would have no problem with the Haredim  leaving en masse, said the Israel Democracy Institute’s Malach.

On the contrary, the Haredi leadership’s unwillingness to compromise even as other parts of Israeli society make significant sacrifices has alienated more of the public, Malach said.

“In this government, I don’t see a real opportunity for change,” he said. “But if there are elections and there is a coalition without Haredim or with weakened Haredim, there could be a change.”

Most Popular
read more: