Serving the State: Haredim and Conscription

Since the start of the war with Hamas, a mere 540 have enlisted to help the war effort. On the other hand, 66,000 young haredi men have received an exemption from military service during the past year, a member of the IDF’s Personnel Directorate told a Knesset Committee last month.

The ruling exempting haredim from military service expired last June and no decision had been arrived at despite the brutal conflict in Gaza which followed the events of October 7. The Netanyahu coalition, however, recently decided to extend the duration of military service of regular soldiers and reservists, while making no changes to the exemption of haredim.

The Israeli Ministry of Defence has proposed that reservists should now be called up until the age of 45, instead of 40. Reserve officers will be called up until 50, instead of up to 45. The number of days that reservists will be required to serve will be double the figure before October 7. Those involved in combat service will see their service extended from two years to three. The Ministry made no mention regarding the conscription of haredim.

A subsequent appeal by the Movement for Quality Government and other organisations and individuals to the High Court of Justice persuaded the judges to issue a conditional order, requiring the state to clarify its reasons for not conscripting haredim into the armed forces in a time of war. The state has to respond later this week.

The moral outrage at Netanyahu’s proposed legislation to exempt the haredim stretched right across the political spectrum. Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s probable successor after the next election, angrily pointed out that the issue of a blanket haredi refusal was ‘a red line during normal times and a black flag during wartime’ — and threatened that his party would bolt the coalition. It was pointed out that there would be a financial black hole of $27.5 billion over the next decade if service for reservists is extended and the haredim continue to be exempted.

Netanyahu spent a frenetic couple of days this week in trying to appease his critics while keeping the haredim on board — and trying to meet the High Court’s deadline for an explanation. Israeli media reported that a revised version of the bill would now include financial penalties for yeshivas if they failed to provide a quota and that some 2,500 haredim would be drafted. A late night meeting on Tuesday between Netanyahu and representatives of the haredi political parties, however, ended in fundamental disagreement — and they, too, have threatened to leave the coalition.

The war is now approaching a six-month watershed. Haredi politicians in the ultra-religious Shas and United Torah Judaism had originally tried to maintain a low profile in the hope that public irritation about haredi conscription would quickly subside. The Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, however, ensured that it remained firmly fixed in the public gaze by implying that if young haredi men were conscripted, then multitudes would book their flights and leave Israel.

Rabbi Yosef first argued that leaving Israel was an option in May 2021. But he has form in other areas, too, such as using a pejorative term to describe Afro-Americans, categorising secular women as “animals” because of their immodest dress code, and his refusal to wear a mask or social distance himself when addressing large crowds during the Covid epidemic.

A few days before the mass murders of October 7, Rabbi Yosef termed secular Jews as “pitiable and stupid who did not find fulfilment in life — people who were jealous of haredi Jews”. The Ombudsman for the Judiciary, Justice Uri Shoham, in November 2011 had recommended Yosef’s removal from the Great Rabbinical Court.

While haredim are clearly affected by the plight of the hostages and say prayers privately, it is significant that they are barely visible in the many protests, demonstrations and vigils in Israel. By contrast, 800,000 followers turned out to honour Rabbi Yosef’s father, the highly respected Ovadia Yosef when he died in 2013.

In a recent poll commissioned by the entrepreneur, Mati Kochavi, respondents were asked about a three-phase plan to secure the release of the hostages. Some 59% supported it with accompanying interim ceasefires. When the total was broken down according to self-definition, 73% of secular Jews approved of the plan while only 24% of the ultra-Orthodox could support it. This is despite their reciting of the Acheinu prayer for the release of captives each Monday and Thursday after the reading from the Torah.

In 1976, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef gave a ruling regarding the fate of the hijacked passengers who had been taken to Idi Amin’s Uganda by a breakaway faction of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Ovadia Yosef held that it was justified to pay a high price in exchanging terrorists for captive hostages.

As Ishai Rosen-Zvi, head of the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud at Tel Aviv University, has pointed out: “Today an unequivocal correlation exists between the level of religiosity and hostility towards negotiations with Hamas.” The more observant, the greater desire to leave the hostages to their fate and not to negotiate – and thereby compromise – with Hamas. Only the far Right in Israel holds this position and does not regard the release of the hostages a priority.

This public indifference by the haredim has its origins in the disdain that its leaders have projected towards their fellow Jews who have held different views during the past two centuries. The French Revolution and the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) broadly fragmented Judaism, with the emergence of different interpretations of orthodoxy as well as the Reform and Conservative movements. The Hatam Sofer in 19th-century Hungary determinedly rebuilt the ghetto walls which the French revolutionary armies had torn down.

The emergence of Jewish nationalism further split the world of Orthodox Judaism. Figures such as Rabbis Kalishcher and Alkalai were the progenitors of religious Zionism. The Lubavitcher Rebbe of the time, however, strongly opposed Zionism, arguing that nationalism had replaced the Torah in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

Today the haredim cover a spectrum ranging from the lukewarm non-Zionism of groups such as Chabad, to the committed anti-Zionism of the Neturei Karta, whose representatives have regularly prostrated themselves before the leaders of the Ayatollahs’ Iran. Rabbis adhering to the Lithuanian school of mitnagdim (opponents of hasidim) have condemned “the Zionist heresy”.

Thirty years ago, its leader, Rabbi Eliezer Schach, similarly threatened to leave Israel. This month  the Israeli press reported that the Lithuanian school’s Rabbi Dov Landau prevented his students from attending military funerals or visiting the wounded in hospital.

Many Israeli haredim believe that they are still in exile while living in the state of Israel. In their eyes, the government is like any other government — except that in Israel its members just happen to be Jews. They do not refer to medinat yisrael (the state of Israel) but to the biblical eretz yisrael (the Land of Israel).

The haredi school system has lamentably failed its pupils. They emerge ill-equipped to earn a decent wage to support their families and thereby remain with the yeshiva world beyond the statuary age of 26. Their position will worsen in the aftermath of the war with Hamas, through an economic downturn and increased unemployment.

The current political situation has been bolstered by the haredi political parties, ironically, aligning themselves with the forces of nationalism within Israel. Indeed, many have been seduced to vote for Otzma Yehudit, the far-right party of Itamar Ben-Gvir. Whereas there were haredi parties that believed in the dignity of labour, such as Poalei Agudat Yisrael, and even pioneering haredi kibbutzim such as Kibbutz Chofetz Chayim during Ben-Gurion’s time, today their non-productive indolence and shirking of national responsibility is appreciated and paid for by Netanyahu’s government.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who is actually paid a salary by the state, believes that the haredim make “a spiritual contribution to national security” and that it is the haredim who study that ensure a military victory. Many non-haredi religious Jews vehemently disagree. Rabbi David Stav of the Tzohar organisation has said that the refusal to serve is “a massive moral stain and truly a chilul hashem (the desecration of God’s name)”.  

It is likely that little will change while Netanyahu remains Israel’s prime minister and haredi parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism remain part of his successive coalitions. Only a new government in power, which does not finance those who believe that bypassing their responsibility to the state is a Jewish virtue, can make a start in returning Israel to the vision of its founders in 1948.

Jewish Independent 27 March 2024

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