Has the war brought Charedim closer to mainstream Israel?

Exemptions from army service for Strictly Orthodox yeshivah students have long been a divisive issue in Israel. But some see a post-October 7 shift


A Charedi man walks by an army recruitment office in Jerusalem, August 2023 . (Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The enlistment of some 3,000 Charedi men in the IDF (in non-combat roles) since the October 7 atrocity has been welcomed as a significant development, heralding a potential sea-change in relations between the Strictly Orthodox and the rest of Israeli Jewish society.

For years, the exemptions for yeshivah students from military service have been a flashpoint. In the early days of the state, they formed part of a pact between the government and the sages of the Strictly Orthodox, which recognised the need to rebuild the traditions of intensive Torah learning following the destruction of the yeshivot in East Europe in the Shoah.

But as Israel’s Charedi population has grown and the number of deferrals from IDF service runs into tens of thousands, some fear the continuance of the status quo poses a threat to the future welfare of the state.

One optimistic voice is Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, the representative in the UK of Eretz Hakodesh, a new grouping formed four years ago to contest the World Zionist Congress elections as advocates of traditional Torah values and lying to the right of the established Orthodox Mizrachi movement. Eretz Hakodesh has been running an appeal for supplies for Israel soldiers and displaced families following the Hamas attack.

The recent volunteering of Charedi men for the army is “unprecedented,” Guttentag said. “They felt they had to get involved. I think something significant has happened.”

He believes it’s “just the beginning” and Charedi involvement in Israeli society is set to increase. The search and rescue service Zaka and the emergency service Hatzola are examples of where Charedim have made a difference. But the way forward is to find “pragmatic solutions” that will create further opportunities for young Charedim after they finish yeshivah - and to avoid coercive measures. “Torah study has got to be protected,” he stressed.

Dr Shai Stern, deputy director of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs in Israel, has pointed to the findings of a recent poll of Strictly Orthodox Israelis as sign of positive change. It revealed that “a significant and growing portion of the Charedi community wants to increase its involvement in various aspects of the state, seeing themselves as an integral part of Israeli society,” he wrote in the Jerusalem Post last month.

Support for Charedi enlistment in the IDF has tripled from nine per cent to 29 per cent and 70 per cent of respondents believe that those who were not studying Torah should contribute to the country through the IDF or some form of national service.

Nearly three-quarters of Charedim believe that “their sense of shared destiny with Israeli society has intensified with the recent war,” he noted.

But a bleaker assessment of survey data has come from Shuki Friedman, vice-president of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute, who said that “a significant majority of the Charedim believe that nothing really needs to change”.

Also writing in the Jerusalem Post, he argued that “only an externally imposed change” that reduces support for the Charedi way of life and “requires them to shoulder their share of the security and economic burden” could advance their integration and “save Israel from a third-world future”.

Rabbi Pini Dunner, the former rabbi of London’s Saatchi Synagogue and now leader of Beverly Hills Synagogue, who has a son in the Nahal Haredi - the IDF battalion that caters for more Orthodox soldiers - observed, “Many Charedim have been moved by the October 7 massacre to rethink their ideological rejection of national service, but among the movers and shakers views have hardened”.

The Charedi leadership, he added, “sees any grassroots attitude change as a danger to its monolithic control of a huge segment of Israel's population which has allowed it to draw funds from the state while remaining independent of formal active participation in Israel's national identity.”

Defenders of the religious exemptions cite as their main justification the primacy of Torah learning, which they believe acts as a spiritual shield which helps to protect Israel from harm.

But that argument does not impress another UK-born Orthodox rabbi, Dr Natan Slifkin, founder of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh in Israel and author of several books. A prolific blogger, he is familiar with the Charedi world, while identifying now with Israel’s national religious camp, and has commented extensively on Charedi attitudes since the war.

The religious city of Bnei Brak might claim that “their Torah protects them from missiles, but is not willing to forgo Iron Dome,” he stated bluntly on Rationalist Judaism .

While the Charedi men who recently joined the IDF may be a “welcome development”, he wrote, they represent “only a tiny fraction” of those who have exemptions.

“In all other areas of life, Charedim do not rely on miracles, do not believe that they will get supernatural support, and do the exact same hishtadlus [personal effort] as everyone else. Only when it comes to military service do they suddenly claim to believe that supernatural protection replaces material effort.”

For Slifkin, serving in the army to defend Israel is a religious duty. He invokes the biblical episode when the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of Manasseh want to settle on the East Bank of the Jordan rather than the Promised Land. Moses agrees only on condition that they will fight when called on. “Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?”, Moses said.

Charedim are “not monolithic”, Slifkin recognises, and they range from those who have enlisted to those who might say Psalms but will not pray specifically for soldiers in the IDF.

While believing that imposing military service would be counterproductive, he nevertheless warns: “If there is no drastic change in Charedi society, then a few years down the line, Israel could well be in serious trouble that will make the current appalling situation look mild by comparison.”

When the war ends, he fears a “rift between Charedi and Zionism society which will be greater than ever before”.

Israelis may have pulled together in the face of danger but Slifkin does not think that divisions should be overlooked. “There is no national achdus [unity] when one large and growing sector of the population is avoiding its responsibility to share a very difficult national burden,” he has said.

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