Sunday, July 14, 2024

In Israel, the military exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews is debated

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As the Israeli army must recruit new soldiers, the case of ultra-Orthodox Jews, hitherto exempt from military service, is raising questions in the country.

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The ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak in Tel Aviv, October 29, 2023.  (Agathe Mahut / RadioFrance)

It was the first warning from the Israeli Supreme Court, the country's highest court, against the military exemption that ultra-Orthodox Jews have enjoyed for years. As of Monday, April 1, yeshivote, students of these religious schools who are of military age, 18 to 24 years old, will no longer receive subsidies to study Torah. At the end of this punitive policy, the Hardim – the God-fearers – feared the most: conscription.

Dela-Shomer district, east of Tel Aviv. Black hats, long coats, about thirty ultra-Orthodox youths in single file, paper in hand, waiting for the opening of the military recruitment office: “It's an exemption document. You present it and you're exempt for a year. There, you see the rabbi's signature and the applicant's signature.” Like Haïm, they are all between 18 and 24, the age for military service, and every year they return to the same place, on the same date and always with the same request.

“We are their watchers”

“I study the Torah so I won't go to the army.” The young man speaks for the group: “Without our work on the Torah, there would be no soldiers. Thanks to our studies of the Holy Book, we keep track of them.” God's Army at the Service of the National Army. The Ministry of Defense estimated the need for men at 7,000 in the short term.

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The ultra-Orthodox age of military service is ten times higher. So, with the war, the outlook of civil society changed: We see how many soldiers were killed or wounded. We need more players. Rivka lost friends in Gaza and her brother was seriously injured.

This researcher, an expert in the ultra-Orthodox community, is a believer, a traditionalist, and despite the tragedies that affect her personally, she understands the mindset of the ultra-religious: I think that the ultra-Orthodox are not necessarily afraid of being killed, but rather of secularism. But the ultra-Orthodox are genuinely concerned. They pray, they try to do things their own way, but they know it's not enough.

“They know the Israelis are very angry with them.”

The response of one of Israel's greatest rabbis shocked a large portion of the population within a month. Yitzhak Yosef said the ultra-Orthodox would leave the country if forced to serve in the army. The government could still propose a bill to fix their military service and save its coalition formed by ultra-Orthodox parties. The plan needs to be approved by the Supreme Court. If this is not the case, financial sanctions against students of religious schools may be tightened and conscription into the military may be enforced. Next Deadline: August 9.

Agapito Llano
Agapito Llano

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