Home News ‘Army needs more men’: Israel to force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve as secularists run out of patience

‘Army needs more men’: Israel to force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve as secularists run out of patience

‘Army needs more men’: Israel to force ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve as secularists run out of patience

They have no intention of serving in the IDF and the patience of secular people will soon run out

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community is generally exempt from compulsory military service. Over the years, the state has tried to change that. These attempts have largely failed, in part because the country failed to pass a law to regulate their services.

Yanki Farber, a Haredi journalist from the city of Bnei Brak in central Israel, is not a typical representative of the ultra-Orthodox community, which currently numbers 1.25 million people, or about 12.5% ​​of the population.

When he was 18, Farber enlisted in the IDF, and after his discharge some three years later, he was occasionally called into the reserves. When the events of October 7, 2023 occurred—Hamas gunmen launched a deadly attack on communities in southern Israel—he donned his military uniform again and went to serve.

But Farber is the exception, not the rule. Historically, ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were a minority when the State of Israel was established in 1948, were exempted from military service. It was then agreed that they would serve the state with prayers, although some enlisted in the IDF, especially in times of war and in cities that were attacked by Arab armies.

'I don't want to be a pawn in this sick game': Israel's anti-Zionist fringe takes a stand

In the 1990s, when their population began to grow, Israel tried to encourage them to serve, but despite their efforts, the IDF managed to recruit only 31 individuals in 1999.

The situation has improved significantly over the years. There were a total of 2,850 in 2016. Recently, the military he announced that it has around 6,000 Haredi soldiers in its ranks. The events of October 7 also boosted the numbers, although this is still a drop in the bucket.

“Most Haredi do not serve because they fear that they will be exposed to a range of different opinions in the army,” Farber said.

“There they will probably meet soldiers from the LGBT community, Druze and Bedouin. They will serve with women—and this encounter may change their minds. This may weaken their religious convictions, which the rabbis fear.” he added.

But Ronen Koehler — an Israeli colonel in the reserves and one of the key activists in the organization Achim Laneshek (Brothers in Arms), which brings together reservists who fight for equality in military service — says the roots of the problem go much deeper.

“It is true that ultra-orthodox rabbis do not want to expose their young generation to modernity. [by sending them to the IDF – ed.]. But it is also true that the more students they have, the more money the yeshiva has [religious school] accepts. They treat it like a business and have no plans to loosen their grip.”

In 2021 it was estimated that Israel spent $83 million a year on its 54,000 young yeshiva students. In addition, it allocated $248 million annually to religious students with families. This budget was increased in 2023 to accommodate the rapidly growing population of Haredis and scholars trust these funds will continue to grow.

This overspending frustrates Koehler, but he also gets angry about the policy’s effects on Israeli society.

“They sit in the yeshiva until they are 26 years old [after which they are automatically exempt from military service – ed.]. They do not study basic subjects. They don’t even study for a certain profession. So when they graduate, they don’t have a job. They cannot integrate into the market, they become a burden on the economy, and the whole country pays for it.”

But for Koehler, it’s not just about the money. It is also about equality and principles.

“It is unacceptable for an 18-year-old secular boy who has just finished his studies to go to the IDF where he will spend three years of his life while his religious peer does not do the same. I’m not saying they do [Haredis – ed.] everyone must go to the combat units. However, they need to serve the state, either by volunteering in hospitals, schools, serving in cyber units or whatever.

The hunger killing children in Gaza has a clear cause that few are willing to name out loud

Strangely enough, the Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees it differently.

In December 2023, two months after the outbreak of war, the Knesset approved a law this raised the age at which exemption from military service is granted from 40 to 41 for regular reservists and from 45 to 46 for officers.

The Knesset is also considering this option increase the number of days reservists are required to serve. Right now, Israeli reservists are giving the state 54 days over three years. The plan is that they will now have to serve 42 days a year, 126 in total.

“This policy defies any common sense,” Koehler said.

“Now it’s clear [because of the war – ed.] the military needs more people – no complaints. But instead of solving the problem by increasing the number of recruits, they put even more burden on those already serving. It creates inequality and frustration because those who enlist have no life and face harsh treatment from their employers.” he added.

This frustration turned into action. Last Thursday, thousands gathered in Tel Aviv to demand equal treatment when it comes to IDF services. Demonstrators urged the government to conscript Haredis and pass a law regulating their service.

But the government seems to be dragging its feet. For years, liberal groups have turned to the Supreme Court of Justice to force the government to pass a law that would equate Haredis with seculars when it comes to military service. They also want the state to stop funding religious institutions that do not send their ineligible students to the military.

In 2017, it was finally decided that the chapter in the Security Service Act that dealt with the deferment of ultra-Orthodox service should be repealed. Every year, however, the government was allowed to do so Extend it finally expired in 2023. Netanyahu’s government, which is backed by religious parties, was given until March 31, 2024 to come up with a specific law to regulate Haredi conscription – but the prime minister asked for a 30-day extension on March 28 to normalize the law. His attorney general did expressed a different opinion and urged the Supreme Court to cut funding to yeshivas and begin recruiting Haredis on April 1.

But it may not be enough for liberals.

“They kept delaying this law year after year. Now is the time… if this government decides to follow the law [the decision of the High Court – ed.] and passes legislation, it will be good for everyone,” Koehler said.

“Unfortunately, this government has shown time and time again that it has no problem breaking the law and ignoring court rulings. If this happens again, anything can happen.” he added.

A number of liberal groups have warned that if Haredis are not called to serve, they will take to the streets in protest – especially now that the IDF urgently needs 10,000 men to quell the threat of terrorism emanating from Gaza.

Unethical, hypocritical and cruel: Western aid cuts will inflict more pain on starving civilians in Gaza

Liberals are also expected to demand a significant reduction in the money Israel spends on yeshiva and various religious institutions. But Farber, himself a yeshiva student, says that approach will never work.

“Using force won’t work. If such a law passes, the Haredis will leave the government, collapse the coalition and sit in the opposition. There they will wait for better days when another government comes and gives them what they want. One thing is certain, they will not send their children to the IDF.

Koehler is aware of this sensitivity. He doesn’t even believe in strength. Rather, he is confident that Haredis can be convinced that military service can benefit them in the long run.

“We have to explain to them that by serving they will end up with more money that they can use to finance their families. After finishing the army, they have a chance to earn NIS 35,000 [roughly $9,600 – ed.] instead of working as a yeshiva teacher and getting NIS 5,000 a month [$1,370 – ed.]. The rabbis don’t get it, but the younger generation does, and we have to talk to them.”

What will happen if persuading the Haredis doesn’t work and the government, which needs their support to stay in power, keeps delaying the passage of the law? Koehler promises that his camp will not sit idly by.

“We are responsible people and we will not burn down the state if it comes to that. But with each passing day we see more and more injustice. We are witnessing more examples of government wrongdoing and our anger and frustration is growing. It might explode one day, too.” he warned.