Israel: Controversy Over Conscription of Ultra-Orthodox Jews Threatening Coalition

We’d all hope these Jews would start fighting with one another. There was some hope there would be a movement against the war inside of Israel, and there is no evidence that is happening. In fact, the opposite is occurring, with Israelis moving further right.

There are some troubles between rightists, however.


Ultra-Orthodox Israelis have long held a privileged position in that society.

Their religious schools, or yeshivas, get generous government subsidies. And yet young men of the Haredim, as they are known in Hebrew, are in all practical terms exempt from mandatory military service.

That exemption has bedeviled Israeli society since its founding. But a legal deadline to come up with a more equitable social compact, at least in the eyes of the Supreme Court, now looms at the end of March.

Powerful members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have made clear they will not help him kick the can down the road without broad political support.

This is the one issue that has the biggest potential of bringing down the coalition,” Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), told CNN.

That sounds like hysteria.

The can has been kicked for decades, so not kicking it now would be absurd.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews view religious study as fundamental to the preservation of Judaism. For many of those who live in Israel, that means study is just as important to Israel’s defense as the military.

In Israel’s nascent days, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed with Haredi rabbis to exempt from military service 400 men studying in religious schools, or yeshivas. In 1948, there were few Haredim in Israel – many were and remain opposed to the state on religious grounds – and the exemption had little practical impact.

In 1998, Israel’s Supreme Court ripped up the longstanding exemption, telling the government that allowing Haredim to get out of conscription violated equal protection principles. In the decades since, successive governments and Knessets have tried to solve the issue, only to be told again and again by the court that their efforts were illegal.

At the same time, the Haredi community has grown significantly. They now make up 24% of recruitment-aged Israelis, according to the IDI. Arab Israelis are exempt from mandatory service. In practice, anyone who tells a recruiter that he studies at yeshiva – anyone who presents themselves to be ultra-Orthodox – can get out of service.

Now, those piecemeal attempts to maintain the Haredi exemption may be running out. The latest government attempt to paper over the problem, in place since 2018,  expires at the end of March.

The day before Netanyahu’s press conference, Yoav Gallant,  Israel’s defense minister, made clear that he did not have his prime minister’s back.

“Any draft bill that will be agreed to by all members of the emergency coalition, I will agree to,” he said. “But without an agreement by all coalition members, the security establishment under my leadership will not support the bill.”

The implication was that the man that polls suggest is most likely to succeed Netanyahu as prime minister – Benny Gantz, who is part of the emergency coalition, but not the pre-October government – will have veto power over any solution to the issue.

Netanyahu was vague in his response.

We will set goals for recruiting ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF and civilian service,” he told reporters. “The worst thing that can happen to us now is to go to general elections during the war, which means losing the war.”

Gantz, who just concluded a highly controversial trip to the United States and United Kingdom that his government declared to be unsanctioned, has made clear that “all parts of society should take part in the right to serve our country,” and that “this is not a matter for the court but for the leaders.”

What’s the view of Israeli public opinion?

Most Israelis agree that the situation is untenable.

In a February poll conducted by the IDI, shared exclusively with CNN, 64% of Israeli respondents and 70% of Jewish Israeli respondents said that the Haredi exemption “should be changed.” The pollsters spoke with Israeli adults – 600 in Hebrew and 150 in Arabic.

In the poll conducted by IDI, 68.5% of Haredi respondents said that their exemption to military service “should not be changed.” Just last weekend, Haredi protesters opposed to conscription blocked a major highway near the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.

There have been pretty serious riots over this in the past, and the Haredi have always won out by getting the can kicked, even though everyone in Israel is against this.

There is no way they are not just going to kick the can this time. Making this a big domestic issue right now makes no sense. Israel is not short of soldiers. If the war gets bigger, it’s going to be you fighting for them, goy.

The issue irritates people, because it is just a scam, but it’s otherwise irrelevant.