Forces: Israeli Haredi Riots


April 20, 2024: In Israel, protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews could spell disaster for the current coalition government of left and right wing parties that was formed after October 7, 2023, through breakup of the prior right wing government’s former coalition. The same Prime Minister led both coalition government. If this doesn’t make sense, that’s normal for Israeli politics. The protests stem from an upcoming move to conscript Haredi yeshiva students into the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Yeshiva students, pupils of Jewish religious institutions, have historically been exempt from Israel's otherwise universal conscription, AND are given lifetime living stipends, including for their wives and minor children. The rationale is that their religious studies constitute a form of national service that protects the state from foreign enemies. If this doesn’t make sense, that’s normal for Israeli politics. The ultra-orthodox and extremely conservative and traditional Haredi remain opposed to military service for their Yeshiva students

With the majority of Jewish Israeli men and many Jewish women required to serve in the military, secular Israelis have long rankled at the Haredi exemption. The sentiment has intensified since October 7, 2023, and Israel's subsequent invasion of Gaza, which saw a massive mobilization of reservists and hundreds of IDF casualties. According to a recent poll, 64 percent of Israelis want the exemptions to end. On April 1st a High Court of Justice forced the issue by halting funds to yeshivas unless their students serve.

This has proven a formidable challenge to Israel’s current coalition government, which contains elements that both strongly support and strongly oppose the exemptions. The Israeli military needs more soldiers because of the continuing fighting in Gaza and the need to upgrade security inside Israel, while the government can’t afford to both keep ten percent of all Israelis on active duty and pay the living expenses of the unemployed Haredi, who compose 12 percent of Israel’s population. The Israeli government is trying to work out a compromise with the Haredi community and avoid forcibly inducting Haredi military age men, avoid the morale problems within the military over the recruitment of unwilling Haredi, and somehow ignore major impending financial problems.

These are not new problems. Since 2000 the Israeli armed forces has suffered morale problems from recruiting more Haredi men while trying to accommodate the lifestyle needs of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the military. Politics and legal complications also present problems. Despite all that, Israel has been able to convince more Haredi to join and, in a growing number of cases, make the military a career or at least become officers and very active in the reserves. The most recent development has been exceptional Haredi recruits joining elite units and undergoing more intense training and accepting the possibility of close contact with women while carrying out their special operations. There are also combat units entirely composed of Haredi. Finally, the conscription exemptions Haredi men long enjoyed are, for all practical purposes, gone.

What motivated this change in attitude was a new generation of Haredi men who paid more attention to the terrorist threats, especially attacks on places sacred to all Jews, like the Wailing Wall at the base of the hill that used to feature the last Jewish temple until it was replaced by a mosque over a thousand years ago. Most Haredi men still want to devote most of their time to religious studies but see mandatory service as more of an obligation than an assault on Haredi religious traditions. Haredi leaders aren’t bending on this but their young men seem to be doing so.

Haredi are only 12 percent of the population, though they form a smaller portion of voters because Haredi have a higher birth rate and a higher percentage of Haredi are children, Haredi tend to vote as their rabbis order them to. This means there are several small but disciplined Haredi political parties that are often essential for the formation of a coalition government. There is a price; that the government must support key Haredi requests. This includes continued exemption from military service.

Non-Haredi Jews, both male and female, are subject to conscription. This means Jewish men and women who reach 18 are subject to 32 months of military service for men and 24 months for women. About 30 percent of potential recruits are exempt from service, most because they are Haredi. About a third of those ineligibles are because of medical problems, criminal records or living abroad. Those who complete military service must serve in the active reserve for two decades or more. That means periodic periods of active service for training or dealing with national emergencies. This is a similar system to what Switzerland and Sweden use.

Haredi are very poor because most men spend the bulk of their time unemployed in religious studies. Haredi believe their religious laws trump secular ones, and this increasingly brought them into violent conflict with the police and their secular neighbors. Most Haredi men do not serve in the military, and some Haredi sects believe that Israel should not even exist. Most Israeli Arabs, who comprise 21% of Israel’s population and voters, tend to agree with that. Almost a quarter of Israeli voters feeling that Israel should not exist makes it difficult to form majority coalition governments.

Haredi also agree with extremely conservative Arabs about lifestyle choices, particularly regarding the status of women, and the Haredi sometimes riot about the latter. This is expressed as discipline problems with Haredi in military service. The largely secular government thought encouraging Haredi men to do military service which, as religious students, they have long been exempt from, would help make Haredi more accepting of non-religious Jews. This did not work initially, and the government has a lot of unhappy non-Haredi soldiers, especially females, to deal with.

There is another problem. Israeli Arabs make up 20 percent of the population and also suffer from less education and more unemployment. The Haredi and Arabs make up over a third of the population and they are the least productive third. Most Haredi and Arabs do not serve in the military or pay much, if any, taxes. These two groups are causing a skilled labor shortage, since so many of their children do not study technical or business subjects but tend to concentrate on religious studies, or simply leave school as soon as they can. This labor shortage, and the rising cost of benefits for poor Haredi and Arab families, is causing political problems because the educated majority of Israelis are tired of the constantly rising taxes they have to pay. Then there is the problem of who serves in the military. Israeli Arabs can volunteer for military service do so, but still face much criticism in the Arab community.

There have been some Haredi men in the military for decades and without problems. Until 2000 only a relatively small number of Haredi men voluntarily served. Israel exempted Haredi soldiers from many of the military lifestyle rules. For example, until a decade ago, it was common for ultra-orthodox recruits to be trained by female instructors, a practice that is common in Israel, where women are subject to conscription. But in the last two decades Haredi rabbis (clerics) increasingly insisted that the military change to accommodate Haredi recruits, and not the other way around. For example, Haredi are not supposed to have any contact with a woman unless they are closely related to them. After 2000 pressure from Haredi rabbis got Haredi politicians to force the government to change military regulations so that a Haredi soldier could request a male instructor, if his group was being taught by a woman. There were many rules like this that were quietly slipped into the military regulations. Haredi troops increasingly called for these rules to be enforced.

The other 99 percent of the troops began suffering a morale hit as they were increasingly harassed by assertive Haredi troops. When commanders complained to politicians, even ones they voted for, they were told to favor the Haredi troops whenever possible. Most troops became aware of this and were not happy and expressed their anger when they voted. All this caused more popular opposition to the Haredi refusal to aid in the defense of all Israelis.

To add to the torment there have been increasing instances where Haredi troops were caught collaborating with Israeli religious extremist groups, in order to foil police or army efforts to keep the peace. In these cases, some Haredi became untrustworthy as well as annoying.

It's not just a military thing. The Haredi were becoming a serious problem outside the military. Violence by religious extremists is becoming more common. The most conservative religious Jews have increasingly used violence in the neighborhoods where they are becoming a majority. For example, they oppose the government allowing cars to park near Haredi neighborhoods on Saturday (the Sabbath). They also oppose billboard ads that feature women anywhere near where Haredi live and segregate women on buses in their neighborhoods. They want to segregate the military as well and that has aroused a lot of public opposition. Most Israeli soldiers are happy with the attention because for a decade they have been ordered to keep quiet about all the pro-Haredi regulations. An increasing number of commanders refused to be politically correct and proceeded to punish Haredi soldiers who disobeyed orders by claiming they were doing so for religious reasons.

After 2010 non-Israeli voters elected more politicians who supported efforts to limit or end Haredi exemption from conscription and special treatment in the military. The first such law was passed in 2014, where the Haredi went to courts invoking laws and rules implemented when Israel was founded to give the then small Haredi community exemptions that allowed Haredi men to concentrate on Torah (religious) scriptures. Because of a higher birth rate, the Haredi percentage of the Jewish population grew from one percent in 1948 to 12 percent now and is headed for 15 percent or more in the next decade. Israeli courts initially agreed with the Haredi military exemptions, but new laws were passed to address court objections and exemption-ban laws modified until they could withstand court challenges. As of 2021 unfavorable court decisions became less of a problem and now Haredi are facing mandatory conscription, at least for men. Problems still exist, but the Haredi military-exemption laws do not.




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