Israel’s army exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox are part of a bigger challenge: The Jewish state is

The Israel-Hamas war has fueled tensions around military exemptions, but the issue has long roiled Israeli politics.

By Michael Brenner Published on Mar 15, 2024.
Israeli police scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jews as they block a main road in Jerusalem during an October 2017 protest against Israeli army conscription. AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File

Just when you think nothing can surprise you anymore in Israeli politics, someone always comes along with a new twist.

This time it was Yitzhak Yosef, one of Israel’s two chief rabbis. In response to debates over whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should be required to serve in the military, or continue to be excused to study religious texts full time, he had a simple answer:

“If they force us to go to the army, we’ll all go abroad,” he declared on March 9, 2024.

Ultra-Orthodox resistance to conscription is nothing new.

But the forcefulness of this declaration is new, especially coming in the midst of a war. And Yosef is not any random rabbi. He is the son of Ovadia Yosef, who was the spiritual leader of the Shas Party: an important partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious governing coalition.

Ever since the state of Israel’s founding in 1948, ultra-Orthodox Jews – those who take the strictest approach toward following Jewish law, and are now around 14% of the population – have been exempt from military service. Among all other Jewish citizens, from the secular to the modern Orthodox, men are required to serve 32 months, and women 24, plus reserve duty.

In 2017, the country’s Supreme Court ruled against the exemptions, but they have continued through a series of legislative workarounds. The latest is due to expire at the end of March 2023, however – and other Israelis’ resentment toward the ultra-Orthodox exemption is at a high.

As a historian, I see the conscription debate as more than a political crisis for Israel’s government. The question is so sensitive because it opens up fundamental questions about the cohesion of Israeli society in general, and of the ultra-Orthodox, or “Haredi,” population’s attitude toward the Jewish state in particular.

It also illustrates the complexity of a country that is not as easily explained as many of its supporters and critics alike believe.

A crowd of men wearing head coverings, with one man seated in front wearing an ornate gold and black robe.
Yitzhak Yosef, center, the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, attends a protest against religious reforms in Jerusalem in 2022. AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean

Initial compromise

Historically, Orthodox Jews struggled to justify the idea of a Jewish state. They prayed for centuries to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, but had a specific return in mind: a Jewish state established by the Messiah. Any other kind of Jewish sovereignty, they believed, would be blasphemy.

Theodor Herzl, who founded modern political Zionism in the late 1800s, had a long beard and looked like a Biblical prophet. Yet he was thoroughly secular and assimilated – he even lit a Christmas tree with his family. Herzl’s movement to encourage more European Jews to migrate to the Holy Land had little appeal for the Orthodox.

There was, however, always a minority among the Orthodox who identified with Zionism, the belief that Jewish people should have a sovereign political state in the land of Israel. According to the Talmud, the central source of Jewish law, saving lives is more important than other commandments – and Zionism saved Jews from pogroms and other anti-Jewish violence in Europe.

During the Holocaust, the vast majority of observant Jews in Eastern Europe were murdered. Afterward, many survivors who had previously opposed Zionism sought refuge in the new state of Israel.

On the eve of Israel’s independence, David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of the state-to-be, entered an agreement with the leaders of the two camps of Orthodox Jews.

The Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, still refused to recognize the legitimacy of a secular Jewish state. The so-called national religious camp, on the other hand, embraced it.

Among other concessions, the new state granted exemption to young Haredi Jews who wanted to study religious texts full time instead of joining the army. That hardly seemed consequential, as the young men in question numbered only a few hundred.

Shifting views

During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem as well as the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. Since then, the national religious camp, once a moderate force, has developed into the spearhead of the right-wing settler movement.

Young men sit at tables in a dimly lit temporary structure.
Jewish settlers study the Torah in a tent at the West Bank outpost of Homesh, near the Palestinian village of Burqa, Jan. 17, 2022. AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Unlike the first generations of Orthodox Zionists, national religious Israelis today are Zionists not despite but because of messianism. Israel, they believe, will help bring about the messianic age. Therefore, right-wing religious Zionists – like Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich – are enthusiastic proponents of army service.

Not so the Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox.

To be clear, Haredi Jews are very diverse. This demographic includes families with roots everywhere from Poland and Romania to Morocco and Iraq. It includes people who support Israel’s existence, and opponents who burn the flag on Independence Day. It includes men who join the workforce and men who dedicate their life to religious study.

The majority of Haredim living in Israel are not Zionists, yet live there because it is the Holy Land and the state subsidizes their study. Anything else – secular education, army service, and often paid work – is seen as a distraction.

A minority of Haredi Jews serve in the armed forces voluntarily, and more have enlisted since the beginning of the latest Israel-Hamas war. But they have no legal obligation to do so; nor do Israel’s Arab citizens.

Four men in black hats and jackets, as well as a child, stand near a blue fence on a street, as they men look down at books in their hands.
Jewish men pray in Jerusalem for the success of the Israeli army and for the return of the Israeli hostages, on Nov. 9, 2023. AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg

Growing Haredi sector

Israel’s governments have continued to tolerate this situation as ultra-Orthodox political parties became much-needed partners.

Yet legal and popular opposition has increased.

In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that the defense minister has no right to exempt Haredi Jews from military service and asked the government to find ways to draft them. In 2014, a center-right government under Netanyahu passed a law aiming to have 60% of Haredi men serving within three years. But the 2015 elections brought Haredi parties back in power, and implementation was effectively abandoned.

Since then, Haredi parties have become more powerful as their population grows. Yet the Supreme Court has made clear that by the end of March 2024, the government either needs to draft Haredim, or the legislature has to come up with a new law to excuse them.

Seven in 10 Israeli Jews oppose the blanket exemption, meaning another exemption might jeopardize Netanyahu’s government. Frustration is also rising over plans to raise the military service of men to three years and to double the duty of reservists to 42 days a year during emergencies.

None of this would matter if the Haredim were still the same tiny segment of society they were in 1948. Today, however, ultra-Orthodox women have 6.5 children on average, compared with 2.5 among other Jewish Israeli women, and 1 in 4 young children are ultra-Orthodox.

The resulting transformation of Israeli society is easy to see. If the trend continues, Israel will become a very different, very religious society – one that can hardly survive economically.

On average, a non-Haredi household pays nine times more income tax than a Haredi one, while the latter receives over 50% more state support. Even if they were ready to work, most Haredim would have a hard time finding well-paid jobs, as their state-subsidized private schools teach hardly any secular topics.

For Israeli society, this portends further fragmentation and a weakening of the economy – to say nothing of the army.

But, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak says, this will never happen. In his and other Haredim’s eyes, Israel’s soldiers succeed only because religious Jews study and pray for them.

“They need to understand that without the Torah, without the yeshivas, there’d be nothing, no success for the army,” he said.

Michael Brenner does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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