man in front of bookcase

Sharing the national burden in Israel

In Israel, most Jewish men are drafted into three years of military service soon after they graduate from high school. Jewish women serve two-year stints. The ultra-Orthodox community has been exempt. But this is beginning to change. Israel’s Supreme Court just ruled that religious seminaries called yeshivas are being cut off from government funding because they don’t send students into the military.

The World

Michal Kuperstein drove two hours to join thousands of demonstrators gathered outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building, where people have been congregating every day this week.

The protesters want the government to bring the remaining hostages in Gaza home. They also want the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to share the national burden of military service, especially now, when the top brass says they need more troops in the war against Hamas.

In Israel, most Jewish men are drafted into three years of military service soon after they graduate from high school. Jewish women serve two-year stints. The ultra-Orthodox community has been exempt because of their commitment to the Torah, which is a full-time, daily practice. But the country’s policies are beginning to change. 

Israel’s Supreme Court just ruled that religious seminaries called yeshivas are being cut off from government funding because they don’t send students into the military. The ruling could have a profound impact on Israeli politics and society.

“Now is the time to make a decision for the future long term, because our kids won’t live here if they see there is no future in Israel,” said Kuperstein, who questioned the current policy that requires her kids to enlist when ultra-Orthodox Israeli families hardly ever send their sons to the military.

Many Israelis agree. They say it’s long past the time for the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox community is called in Hebrew, to serve in the army.

In the near term, this issue could bring about the fall of the current government. Because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s razor-thin majority includes ultra-Orthodox politicians who say they will quit if the prime minister can’t find a way to keep the draft exemption in place.

There are an estimated 60,000 ultra-Orthodox men between the ages of 18 and 26 who could face mandatory enlistment. 

But a lot of Haredi Jews, who make up about 13% of the country, are saying no.

After last week’s Supreme Court decision, ultra-Orthodox men blocked a highway in central Israel.

Rabbi Boaz Naki is with a group called the Jerusalem Faction that’s staunchly against Haredi enlistment. In fact, the group’s stance is that secularization is worse than death.

“This, this law, the Bible law, is eternal,” said Naki, who said his ancestors came from Iran 95 years ago to study the Bible. “So, how can you tell me now that the government did this law at the Knesset? It goes up. It goes down. Doesn’t matter. The laws of the Bible are eternal.” 

Naki, holding a small Hebrew Bible with binding held together by duct tape, added that, “I love the troops. I pray for them.”

But if Haredi Jews stop studying the Torah, he said, that will be a disaster for Israel, for Jews everywhere, and for humanity worldwide.

man with Torah
Rabbi Boaz Naki is from an ultra-Orthodox organization called the Jerusalem Faction, which is staunchly opposed to drafting the Haredim. Naki says the Haredim have one sacred priority and that is to study the Torah. Everything else is subordinate to Torah study. The JF organizes protests against the Israeli government and is very active in opposing any move to make the ultra-Orthodox community subject to mandatory military service.Noam Sharon/The World

The Israeli army is making accommodations to attract more religious troops. Naki said that he’s not impressed; he worries that young Haredi Jews who serve will end up drifting away from the ultra-Orthodox way of life.  

Rafi Goldmeier, a 50-year-old American-born father of eight living in the city of Bet Shemesh, said that is a legitimate concern.

Goldmeier first came to Israel in 1990 to study Jewish scripture.

“I was in a yeshiva. So, we were studying all the Jewish studies, Talmud and it’s called halacha, Jewish law. I am actually ordained as a rabbi,” he said, sitting at his dining room table in front of a bookcase crammed with religious books.

But unlike most ultra-Orthodox Israelis, when his sons turned 18, Goldmeier said he encouraged them to consider serving in the military. Three of them did just that.

“There’s a mandatory draft in Israel. There are some exceptions to that. But in general, there’s a mandatory draft,” he said. “So, definitely, while the issue of studying Torah versus serving in the army might be under debate, especially right now, it’s a hot topic. Definitely, if you’re not going to be studying Torah full-time, there’s no reason you should be exempt from the mandatory draft.”

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews live in communities isolated from mainstream Israeli society. It’s not uncommon for Haredi men to spend long hours most days of the week in yeshivas, where they pray, study scripture, read commentaries by prominent rabbis and engage in religious debates with their counterparts. 

This is central to the Haredi way of life, but it’s not sustainable, said Yitzkik Crombie, who is also ultra-Orthodox.

man in office
Yitzik Crombie is the author of “When the Ultra-Orthodox are the majority.” He’s also ultra-Orthodox and helps run a government-funded center that provides training, education, and career development for ultra-Orthodox men and women. He says the ultra-Orthodox need to do more to contribute to the Israeli economy and to the security of the country by joining the military in larger numbers. He doesn’t think every young Haredi man has to serve in the army. He says some could do national service instead. But especially after Oct. 7, Crombie says he came to realize that the ultra-Orthodox are part of Israel too and they need to be more directly involved in the military by serving in uniform.Noam Sharon/The World 

“Fifty-eight percent of the community are at the age of under 18. The average number of children for women, it’s more than six,” he said.

That amounts to more than a million people, making it “[a] very fast-growing community. The fastest community in the world, in the Western world.”

Crombie wrote a book called, “When the Ultra-Orthodox are the Majority.”

He said that will happen here in Israel over the course of the next couple of generations. And that the Haredim need to better integrate into mainstream society and modern life.

Crombie helps run a foundation that provides job training and career counseling to Haredi men and women. When it comes to military service, he said, he used to stay away from this politically charged topic. But he changed his thinking around the issue after Oct. 7.

“It’s not a society issue. It’s a security issue. If we want to survive in the jungle that we are living in, in the tough neighborhood, we need to find more soldiers,” he said, adding, “If we’re not going to find a solution for the integration of the Haredim into the army and let the Haredim serve in the army,[for]  the sustainability of the state of Israel, I’m not sure that we will be [here] in 20 years.”

Noam Sharon contributed to this report.

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