coalition chatter

In Israel, discord in coalition over Haredi conscription

As the IDF seeks to lengthen mandatory and reserve service as manpower needs increase, some are calling to end the dispute over the Haredi exemption from service

Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via AP

Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism Amichai Chikli speaks during a symposium on fighting antisemitism titled 'Never Again : Lip Service or Deep Conversation' in Krakow, Poland on January 22nd, 2024.

Coalition lawmakers called on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to conscript Haredim to the IDF rather than extend mandatory service for those already enlisted, exposing potentially destabilizing cracks in Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

The IDF published a plan last week to increase its manpower in light of the war in Gaza and expected ongoing security needs. According to the new plan, mandatory military service for males would rise from two years and eight months to three years, and for women in combat from two to three years. In addition, the retirement age for regular reservists would rise from 40 to 45, and would require more time per year.

Politicians in the opposition pointed out that the vast majority of Haredi 18-year-old males are exempt from serving in the IDF by declaring that they are full-time yeshiva students, and said it would be unfair to add to the burden of those who already serve when Haredim are not required to do so.

The matter of Haredi enlistment has been controversial for over 20 years. Repeated Supreme Court rulings in recent decades declaring their exemption from military service unlawful and requiring the Knesset to pass new legislation on the matter, and Netanyahu-led coalitions’ failure to do so, has led to multiple elections. The insistence of Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism on continuing the exemption and, at times, enshrining it in law, has also been a factor in several parties refusing to sit in governing coalitions with them, contributing to the consecutive election cycles of 2019-2021.

While voices within Netanyahu’s religious-right coalition calling for change are growing – and now include Haredi representatives – at least some continue to take a hard line against Haredi enlistment. 

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli and MKs Dan Illouz and Moshe Saada wrote to Netanyahu on Tuesday, noting that in the war that followed Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre of over 1,000 Israelis, 569 Israeli soldiers were killed and over 2,800 were wounded.

“In the continuing wartime reality, the number of soldiers needed to fulfill the mission of our long-term security…requires renewed preparations and appropriate legislation,” their letter reads. “The immediate need [for the IDF plan] is understandable and clear, and the legislative amendments must be advanced to ensure that the IDF acts within the law, but the bill naturally and justly floats a broader matter that is pushed off from decade to decade without a solution.” 

The Likud lawmakers called to “expand the circle of those who carry the burden” of military service.

“Unlike in regular times, a situation in which certain groups in society carry the burden of security on their shoulders, with the price that they pay, while other groups in Israel continue in their routine lives, can no longer be calmly accepted,” they wrote.

Chikli, Illouz and Saada suggested that the bill be temporary, for the next year, and in that time, a law be passed “to allow additional groups in the public to take part.”

Others in the coalition have also expressed misgivings about the proposal in recent days, with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich saying that while “the Haredi public is dear and beloved and contributes much to the State of Israel, it is now necessary that it take a more significant part in the missions of defense and security.”

“Religious Zionism,” the form of Orthodoxy that Smotrich ascribes to, “proves that it is possible to combine learning Torah and observing the mitzvahs…together with military service on the front,” he added.

Some Haredi politicians have tried to remedy the situation, with Welfare Minister Yaakov Margi of Shas telling Haredi news site Kikar Hashabbat: “When you hear how many have fallen, when you visit [hospitals] — you understand that action must be taken…There is a need in Israeli society to see haredi society participate in the effort.”

“I can’t explain it, even with the value of studying Torah…to any mother whose son is on the front, who cannot sleep at night for months. I can’t explain why young Haredi men are not conscripted,” he said.

Margi, who served in the IDF, presented a plan of his own, summing it up as: “whoever is learning Torah will continue to learn, but whoever is not learning –— and there are many –— will be conscripted.”

Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, another Shas member and IDF veteran, asked Maj. (res.) Yossi Levi, CEO of the Nahal Haredi organization that seeks to help ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the IDF, to draw up plans for more Haredim to enlist. 

However, United Torah Judaism has not budged from its traditional position. 

While not addressing the enlistment bill specifically, the Haredi bloc’s leader, Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, took the position that everything is fine within the coalition in a recent interview with Kikar Hashabbat saying: “Who’s having a bad time here? What does the government have to do with the war?”

A month before the war, Goldknopf threatened to topple the government if it did not pass a bill enshrining the Haredi exemption from mandatory service. 

UTJ MK Moshe Roth argued in an interview with Jewish Insider last month that the Haredi conscription exemption “won’t change…because nobody wants it to change. It’s a political sport…It’s good for the polls when an election comes around.” 

Roth said that “the IDF doesn’t need more manpower” and that legislation cannot change social norms. In fact, he said, it would be ideal if as many people learned Torah full time as served in the IDF.

At the start of the war in Gaza, thousands of Haredim expressed interest in volunteering for the IDF. By December, 449 had enlisted.

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