Coalition tensions mount as Israel grapples with Orthodox draft dilemma ahead of deadline

An integration plan consists of training a substantial portion of the Orthodox community for home-front defense and providing mass training in tech.

By Sveta Listratov, TPS

Amid the numerous challenges confronting Israeli government, one issue stands out as particularly contentious: legislation for recruiting into the army Orthodox men whose communities prioritize religious studies.

The issue has taken on greater urgency amid Israel’s war with Hamas and divides within the Knesset.

“Since the establishment of the State of Israel, there is no greater issue in the ongoing public debate than Orthodox draft- it brought down governments in the past, and it might do the same to the current government,” says Yossi Levi, CEO of Netzah Yehuda a non-profit organization that seeks to integrate Orthodox men into the military.

“There’s a widespread expectation for all citizens to contribute to the state’s challenges, but the Orthodox community sees their contribution differently. While it may seem they’re exempt, they argue they do share in the challenges through their commitment to the supreme value of Torah study, a Jewish tradition upheld for thousands of years,” Levi explained.

Military service is compulsory for all Israeli citizens. However, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, and the country’s senior rabbis agreed to a status quo that deferred military service for Orthodox men studying in yeshivot, or religious institutions.

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At the time, no more than several hundred men were studying in yeshivot.

However, the Orthodox community has grown significantly since Israel’s founding. In January 2023, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that Orthodox Jews are Israel’s fastest growing community and projected it would constitute 16% of the population by the end of the decade.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute, the number of yeshiva students exceeded 138,000 in 2021.

That demographic growth fueled passionate debates about “sharing the burden” vs. the status of religious study in a Jewish society.

A law authorizing the exemptions expired in June 2023, and a second law granting temporary authorization to continue the status quo expires at the end March.

The governing coalition has opted for another temporary order to prevent the recruitment of yeshiva students. But Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said he will not take part in new legislation without a broad public consent.

The government also faces a March 27 deadline to explain to the High Court why the authorization law should stand despite its expiration. Orthodox political leaders have warned that a court order to draft yeshiva students could collapse the government.

The Seismic Shift of October 7

A December 2023, a survey by The Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, conducted in the wake of October 7 attack on Israel revealed a notable shift in the Orthodox community’s views on integration into Israeli society.

Among 500 respondents, 73% expressed a stronger connection to Israeli society and 70% agreed that non-Torah-studying Orthodox should be recruited into the army or participate in other forms of national service.

The Haredi Institute working in partnership with the National Security Council and the Israel Defense Forces established a forum and think tank to devise a comprehensive plan within three months for the seamless integration of the Orthodox community into the nation’s security and emergency systems.

“The forum is developing a plan with the understanding that the draft law will not resolve the situation. The draft law issue is a narrative war. It brings no result,” Shai Stern, deputy chairman of the Institute for Haredi Policy Studies told TPS-IL.

“Our plan operates on the consensus that numerous security challenges exist in the country, and the large Orthodox community, which is also under threat, can undertake to address these challenges.”

The plan in working rests on three main pillars: training a substantial portion of the Orthodox community for home front defense, providing mass training in technology, intelligence, and defense industries, and organizing civil society organizations into a unified and structured body.

“The main challenge here is to overcome the political wars around that issue,” Stern stressed. “Israel needs manpower quickly. There is no time for debates.”

The urgency and scale of the challenge appear to be unanimously acknowledged among the Israeli citizens regarding homeland defense.

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“We are at a historical point where there is a chance for change,” said Rabbi Shaul Avdiel, a Netzah Yehuda coordinator. ”Time for unified nation and army, with tailored military procedures.”

The establishment of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion a quarter of a century ago, now called Nahal Haredi, provided a framework specially designed for Orthodox soldiers, addressing adherence to Torah law and social norms. Regulations tailored to soldiers’ religious needs include dietary laws, and Shabbat observance.

But the adapted framework is still not too attractive to the Orthodox youth to enlist en masse.

“The public fixation on recruiting Orthodox soldiers hinders the progress of Orthodox society towards it,” Avdiel explained. “They are undergoing an internal process that should be respected. However, politicians often lack patience in this regard. The ultra-Orthodox community seeks assurance that the military respects and understands them without seeking to alter their beliefs.”

Having previously served as the rabbi for the battalion, Avdiel now advocates for the creation of an Orthodox command unit within the larger IDF structure, complete with its own commanding general which he says would allow for greater integration.

“As the number of Orthodox soldiers increases, the integration process will naturally become more streamlined and efficient, as implementing specific changes for a smaller group of soldiers is complicated in practice,” Avdiel explained.