War spurs anger over Israel's military exemption for ultra-Orthodox

AFP , Saturday 2 Mar 2024

As Israelis are called up to join the war on Gaza, anger is mounting at the ultra-Orthodox community which has long been spared the compulsory military service required of most citizens.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish
File Photo: An Israeli soldier speaks with an old man while an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands nearby in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. AFP


Since October 7, the question surrounding whether the insular community, whose members see army service as conflicting with their religious duties, should be obligated to serve has sparked debate and led to protests against their decades-long exemptions.

"That's how it is when you're a normal Israeli. The whole society has to do its part," said Oren Shvill, one of hundreds of Israelis at a recent demonstration in Jerusalem.

The 52-year-old engineer, who lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank, is among around 340,000 reservists called up in nearly five months of the Israeli war on Gaza.

Public frustration has heaped pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- long considered a protector of the community -- whose coalition includes the two major ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Last year, his government granted Jewish schools, called yeshivas, an unprecedented budget of more than $1 billion.

Nearby, young Israelis shout "Lazy bunch" and "Parasites" at a group of ultra-Orthodox men clad in traditional black jackets, long beards, and round fur hats.

In response, the men tauntingly launch into prayer and dance, singing "It's better to die than go to the army!"

'Bear the burden'

Since Israel's founding in 1948, Jewish men who studied the Torah full-time in a seminary have been granted an annual deferment from military service until the age of 26, at which point they become exempt.

This was meant to allow a group of 400 young people to study sacred texts and preserve Jewish traditions, much of which had been lost during the Holocaust.

But today, Israel's ultra-Orthodox number is 1.3 million people -- bolstered by a fertility rate of over six children per woman, compared with the national average of 2.5.

Last year alone, 66,000 members of the community were excused from military service.

The army has pleaded for more troops following October 7.  

Israel's war on Gaza has killed at least 30,320 people, mostly women and children, according to Gaza's health ministry.

The army, which says it has lost 242 soldiers in Gaza since launching a ground invasion on October 27, also intends to increase the duration of conscription from 32 to 36 months for men.

On Wednesday, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant dropped a political bombshell by calling for an end to the long-time exemptions.

"We must all bear the burden," he said.

The following day, Netanyahu said he intended to "find an agreement for (the ultra-Orthodox) to join the army or the civilian service, even if not everyone will be satisfied".

But he cautioned that doing so during the war would "block everything", collapsing his coalition and triggering elections.

The close-knit community, whose members mostly interact and marry among themselves, says its religious and traditional values would be compromised when engaging with the broader society within the army.

Additionally, many ultra-Orthodox are apprehensive about military service due to the potential requirement to mix with members of the opposite sex, which 23-year-old yeshiva student Shmuel says is "forbidden by the Torah".


'Fish out of water'

Yehuda Chen, another ultra-Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem, said they will "fight against this at all costs."

"Taking a boy out of yeshiva is impossible, it's like taking a fish out of water. In a minute, it dies," he said.

However, according to Tomer Persico, a religious researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, the community has already become increasingly engaged in Israeli society.

Between 20 and 30 percent of ultra-Orthodox have entered wider society over the past 30 years through working at companies, or through civil service or social activities.

Among them, just over 1,000 enlist in the army each year, despite the risk of being ostracised by their community.

More joined after October 7, but there was no massive shift in enlistment.

But according to a former high-ranking officer, the army is also not rushing to enlist them.

"They are not good fighters, and we don't have time, amid war, to take months to train people without education other than a religious one," he told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Betzalel Cohen, a moderate ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem, said there may be room for compromise.

The state and the community should agree on "reasonable and progressive goals" to integrate the young people into the army, he said.

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