Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Another shot has been fired in Israel’s ongoing internal war.

The country’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Ultra-Orthodox Jews known as Haredim must join the Israel Defense Forces for the first time. It also states that male Haredim will no longer receive government funding to study Jewish texts at schools called yeshivas and in adult study halls called kollels.

The ruling — and an immediate pledge by some Haredi Jews to defy it — underline Israel’s internal battle between secular and religious forces as it wages war on Hamas in the Gaza Strip since the October 7 attacks and faces an intensifying conflict with Hezbollah guerrillas on its northern border.

“One thing is certain: not one Yeshiva student will leave his studies to join the army when being coerced to do so,” Rabbi Heshy Grossman told Newsweek via WhatsApp after the ruling. “We believe that the Supreme Court has exceeded its mandate and should not be taking authority over matters of religious life.”

At the root of the dispute is an exemption dating back to Israel’s founding 76 years ago, which allowed certain Haredi men to avoid universal conscription.

Haredi protester arrested in Israel
Israeli police detain a protester as they they try to disperse Ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting against changing the laws on the military draft from which the Ultra-Orthodox community has traditionally been exempt, in the central Israeli…

Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP

Instead of putting on olive drab uniforms when they graduate high school as their secular peers — both men and women — must do as conscripts, these new-minted men wear dark suits, white shirts, black felt circular head coverings (kippot) and big black hats that run from fedoras to large beaver-fur headpieces depending on the occasion and particular sect.

The decision was unanimous among the justices, with Acting President of the Court Uzi Vogelman saying, “In the midst of a grueling war, the burden of inequality is harsher than ever and demands a solution.”

According to Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, the law that allowed yeshiva students to avoid military service was set to expire at the end of March, and the possibility of its renewal is what led to petitions by both civil groups and 240 private individuals.

Since the war with Hamas began on Oct. 7, 666 Israeli soldiers have died and nearly 4,000 have been wounded, according to the government. Many thousands of reserve troops have been called up, all of which has further heightened tensions between the Haredim and the rest of Israel.

An Israel soldier gazes at a photo
An Israel soldier gazes at a photo of one of the people killed by Hamas at the Nova Festival site on Jun. 23. Most Israelis are conscripted into the army and the Supreme Court on…

Jason Fields

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza says that more than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed. It doesn’t keep a separate tally of how many of the dead were members of Hamas.

“We’re not necessarily Israeli,” said Grossman during an afternoon at the yeshiva where he has an office. “We don’t automatically believe Israel has it right.”

“What good is their praying?”

Many Israelis seem to agree with the Haredim that their lack of service sets them apart. Without prompting, families of hostages still held in Gaza from the October 7 Hamas attack, condemned the Haredim for not serving.

“What good is their praying?” said Yosef Jucha Engel, grandfather of Ofir Engel, who was held in Gaza for more than 50 days, “Where was God on October 7?”

And among the religious, it is only the Haredim, who make up 12.5 percent of Israel’s population, who don’t serve, though with a birthrate of 7 children for each woman, they are growing fast.

As Grossman sees it, he and his movement are a continuation of thousands of years of tradition. The secular state of Israel is a mere child—and its foundation on secular rather than religious principles leaves it distinctly imperfect.

Grossman expressed an interest in compromise with the more secular state. He said the Haredim simply can’t change the one thing the secular state most wants them to: the draft exemption.

“Let us raise our kids” he said. “Give us our yeshivas.”

That’s exactly what polls show the rest of Israel doesn’t want. Non-Haredi Israelis speak of a military becoming fragile, of a need for more soldiers—and of the fast-growing Haredi population as a drain on resources.

In fact, 97 percent of non-Haredi Israelis would do away with the religious exemption from military service entirely, according to an NGO called Hiddush, which says it campaigns for religious freedom and equality in Israel.

The decision to allow a small number of men to spend their lives in nothing but study of the Torah came just a few years after the Holocaust and encompassed a few hundred. Tens of thousands spend their lives doing so now. Yeshiva is then followed by kollel, where married men receive a stipend so that they can study uninterrupted.

For additional income, their wives work a large variety of jobs, while also having an average of seven children each.

When asked about whether the Haredim have a responsibility to protect the secular state, Grossman’s answer was straightforward.

“It’s not what we’re good at,” he said.

Those in yeshivas and kollels don’t know how to work in the material world and aren’t meant for it. Those things are for other people, he said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Man
A Haredi man studies by the Western Wall in Jerusalem on June 18. Israel’s Supreme Court has ended an exemption for ultra-Orthodox Haredim from being conscripted into the armed forces.

Jason Fields

Grossman’s views aren’t shared by all Haredim. Some say that they must stay immersed in study because it is their prayers that make it possible for Israel to continue to exist.

Grossman suggested a potential compromise.

“Not everyone goes to yeshiva,” he said, suggesting the Haredi men who don’t could serve. In fact, Reuters reports 10 percent of the Haredim do volunteer to serve.

When asked about Haredi women, Grossman chuckled lightly, and suggested single-sex units where there was no possibility of sex before marriage might be OK.

“We Haredi have a siege mentality,” Grossman said. “There’s no trust between us,” and the rest of Israeli society. “Everyone is trying to win. You want us to stop having kids! What do you want?”

Many non-Haredi Israelis fear they will soon be outnumbered in their own country.
“From their point of view, they are right,” Grossman said.

Some Israelis question what would happen if the Haredim are in the majority and able to impose their views from a position of power. Among other views that don’t match the majority of Israeli society, the Haredim are anti-LGBTQ rights, against pre-marital sex, and believe the sabbath must be kept strictly, meaning the entire country would largely need to shut down on Saturdays.

“We don’t want to be in charge of this country,” he said. “It’s not what we know how to do.”

Still, he added that if the time came, “I don’t know what will happen.”