Israel’s War Within the War

The issue of Haredi exemption would have been set aside during wartime – Israel has far more pressing issues – if not for the government pushing through the legislation in the middle of the war.

Early on in the Israel-Hamas war, a few dozen ultra-Orthodox men volunteered to join the Israel Defense Forces. It was a brilliant publicity stunt and their pictures at an IDF induction base in their new uniforms featured prominently in all the news organizations – especially the 40-year-old son of Shas leader Arye Dery.

Finally it was happening: the Haredi community that for 75 years had remained distant from matters of state was prepared to do its bit sharing the national security burden. Yet the truth was that none of the not-so-young men were destined for boot camp in one of the IDF’s combat units. A total of 450 Haredi men took the opportunity to gain the social cachet of having “served” in this way. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Haredi yeshiva students remain exempt from the draft, even though the High Court of Justice has ruled that this exemption is unconstitutional as it discriminates against those who do serve.

Like many other Israeli controversies, this one would have been set aside during wartime – Israel has far more pressing issues right now – if it weren’t for a new bill being prepared for swift legislation in the Knesset. If passed, this bill will extend the period of compulsory service for young men to three years (it’s currently 32 months), while the age at which former conscripts can be called up for the reserves will be 45 (instead of the current 40). And while most active reservists previously did 25 days of operational duty every three years, now they will be liable to do 40 days annually.

Many reservists have already spent four months in uniform since the war began – and by all accounts, the motivation to turn up for duty has been high following Oct. 7, and remains so. But the prospect of having to do a lot more reserve duty in the years to come, when tensions will likely remain much higher than before the war not just in Gaza but on the northern front and the West Bank too, has put the spotlight back on those who won’t be spending long months on patrol.

So far, the Haredi leadership has tried to lower its profile on the matter. Its leaders have no intention of allowing their students to enlist – it would empty the yeshivas and end their control over the young men in their communities – but the politicians are savvy enough to know that there’s no way they can win this battle in the court of public opinion.

While “secular” media was awash with the hope that October 7 would be the paradigm shift leading to Haredi participation, most Haredi public opinion surveys showed their had been little to no change. The majority of the community remained in support of the exemption legislation and against serving.

While Haredi leaders can simply refuse to give interviews for a period, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who relies on them as crucial ruling coalition partners, is exposed. Or as one minister put it: “Netanyahu is trying to make a comeback in the polls, but his problem is not only that Israelis don’t want him as prime minister after Oct. 7. Now they don’t want his partners either, and they’re dragging each other down.”

Netanyahu’s tactic has been to try to highlight Haredi volunteers. Last week, when asked about the matter in a press conference, he extolled the men of Ichud Hatzala – a private, first responders organization that was set up as a rival to the much larger Magen David Adom rescue service. Netanyahu claimed that half of Ichud Hatzala’s volunteers are Haredi. Whether or not that’s true, a few thousand part-time volunteers is not going to convince Israelis that the Haredim are carrying a fair share of the burden.

Another reason Israeli men and women will have to spend much more time away from home on reserve duty is the need to police the West Bank and protect the settlements there. The far-right politicians who represent the settlers and their media mouthpieces are fully aware of the risk of public anger in their direction and have taken preemptive action: the IDF soldiers killed in Gaza since the war began who were themselves settlers, or at least educated in religious Zionist schools, are constantly being emphasized by them in the media.

It’s a particularly ghoulish body count, even though their representation in the combat units is indeed higher than their proportion in Israel’s population. It seems to have been effective, as nearly all the criticism about the new law has been directed so far at the Haredim and not the settlers.

Yet this is still a double-edged sword as the ultra-Orthodox parties are the far right’s coalition partners. Without the Haredi vote, they and Netanyahu wouldn’t be in power. The rising surge in public anger over the exemption could bring them all down.

But while leveraging that anger is likely to yield short-term benefits for opposition politicians (we’re already seeing a rise in the polls for Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – the party most openly critical of the Haredi community), it is a risky strategy in the longer term.

Even if the polls now show that Benny Gantz or another centrist politician can form a coalition without any of Netanyahu’s partners, the actual result of an election, whenever it is held, will be different. Whoever the prime minister that replaces Netanyahu is, they may need to include a Haredi party in their coalition. In such a scenario, ending the exemptions would be a nonstarter.

Netzach Yehuda soldiers during sunrise. Photo by Hillel Maeir/TPS 

Even if the next government has no Haredi parties in its coalition, there isn’t any viable way of forcing tens of thousands of yeshiva students to enlist. An overstretched police force would have to do nothing but chase down deserters in such a scenario. It simply won’t happen by force. The rabbis’ edicts are not the only reason young Haredi men aren’t joining up. They have been brought up in a community largely isolated from the rest of Israeli society. By the time they turn 18, they have no relevant education or experience to help them in the stressful secular environment of military service.

As long as there is a government-funded, separate and segregated Haredi education system that is under no obligation to teach the national curriculum and which, from the age of 13, denies its male students any nonreligious studies, there is no way that any more than a handful of young Haredi men could become soldiers who will be of any use to the IDF.

In order for the Haredim to join up, first there has to be a revolution in Haredi education – and that will take a generation. It is already starting to happen on the margins of ultra-Orthodox society, as a small but increasing number of Haredi parents have been founding and sending their sons to “Haredi yeshiva high schools”: In addition to learning Torah and Talmud, these students also study math, science and English, and even take the national high school graduation exams.

These parents want their children to have a future in the wider Israeli society, while still remaining Haredi. It is an essential and even revolutionary process, but will take years until it encompasses a broader section of the Haredi community. It can’t be rushed.

War is often a time of great social upheaval and change, especially when it comes to women’s roles. For example, this war has ended the controversy over opening IDF combat roles to women (over 40,000 female reservists have served so far since the start of the war). But not all of society’s problems can be solved by war, and that includes the Haredi community’s place in Israeli society.

Change is coming, but not quite yet.