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With war in Gaza, Israel faces new pressure to draft the ultra-Orthodox into service

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray at a yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel, on March 21. The war in Gaza has prompted calls for Israel to end military exemptions for full-time religious students.
Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray at a yeshiva in Bnei Brak, Israel, on March 21. The war in Gaza has prompted calls for Israel to end military exemptions for full-time religious students.

A core tension in Israeli society has grown more urgent since the Hamas attack on Israel last October: Whether to draft the ultra-Orthodox into military service.

Full-time religious students have been broadly exempt since the nation's founding 76 years ago. A sky-high birth rate means the share who don't serve has grown larger over the decades. Meanwhile, the Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 people — and Israel's response to it — has led to both a mass mobilization and shortage of soldiers.

Pressure to solve this disconnect has intensified a battle that both the ultra-Orthodox community and the military see as existential.

And the clock is ticking. Facing a deadline set by the nation's Supreme Court, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is supposed to present a military draft plan by the end of the month. He could either extend the exemption, or embrace growing calls for change. Either way, he faces opposition that threatens his ruling coalition.

On a recent evening in the city of Bnei Brak, a center of Israeli ultra-Orthodox life, 23-year-old Shmuel Hezi was defensive about the debate. He and other young men in black coats and broad brim black hats were gathered for evening prayer outside the prestigious Chazon Ish religious seminary, or yeshiva.

The media seems to forget, he says, but after the Hamas attack, the Haredim, as Orthodox Jews are called in Hebrew, did their part.

"We were the first responders, going in the ambulances and helping to identify bodies," he says.

It's true that many ultra-Orthodox did perform these jobs. But the idea of enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) — what's known in Israel as the People's Army? He rejects it out of hand.

Israeli soldiers gather at a staging area in southern Israel before entering Gaza in December. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is supposed to present a military draft plan in coming days that could either extend exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, or embrace growing calls for change.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Israeli soldiers gather at a staging area in southern Israel before entering Gaza in December. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is supposed to present a military draft plan in coming days that could either extend exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, or embrace growing calls for change.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men cross a street in Bnei Brak, Israel, on March 21. Full-time religious students have been broadly exempt from military service in Israel since the nation's founding 76 years ago.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men cross a street in Bnei Brak, Israel, on March 21. Full-time religious students have been broadly exempt from military service in Israel since the nation's founding 76 years ago.

"Let's turn the tables," he says. "If the army was all religious people, would you, a secular person, send your son? No, you would not."

In fact, after the attack a couple thousand ultra-Orthodox did sign up for military service. And polls showed more Haredim support for the military. But for many Israelis, who overwhelmingly support ending the exemption, it's not nearly enough.

Since the surprise Hamas assault, Israel has been fighting on three fronts: A punishing military campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health; stepped up battles in the West Bank and mutual attacks along its northern border with the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah. To support all this, the Israeli military has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists, drafted others early and pushed for longer rotations.

"The people that are serving will now have to do twice or three times more. That's crazy. It will not happen," says Ron Scherf, co-founder of Brothers and Sisters in Arms. The group of reservists has held regular protests calling for an end to the broad ultra-Orthodox exemption.

Scherf served just outside Gaza for a month after the October attack, and says he was most recently called up for reserve duty two weeks ago. His 20-year-old son is now doing his mandatory service.

"A minister in the government who is willing to send my son to his death, and his son doing nothing," he says. "Who can understand that?"

Scherf's group has three demands: Everyone must enlist; waivers should apply to everyone; and both rules must be enforced.

Ron Scherf, co-founder of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, sits for a portrait at his home in Tel Aviv on March 18. The group of reservists has held regular protests calling for an end to the ultra-Orthodox exemption.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Ron Scherf, co-founder of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, sits for a portrait at his home in Tel Aviv on March 18. The group of reservists has held regular protests calling for an end to the ultra-Orthodox exemption.
Ron Scherf (second from right) takes part in a protest in Tel Aviv opposing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calling for a deal to release the hostages still held in Gaza, on March 23.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Ron Scherf (second from right) takes part in a protest in Tel Aviv opposing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and calling for a deal to release the hostages still held in Gaza, on March 23.

Critics say too many people are now exempt

The ultra-Orthodox military exemption goes back to Israel's 1948 founding in the wake of the Holocaust, when protecting the remnant of religious scholars was considered key for a Jewish state. At the time it only applied to some 400 people.

But Haredi families have on average six or seven children, and that birth rate makes them the fastest growing segment of Israel's population. They now make up more than a quarter of enlistment age men, according to Yonahan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

"There are huge implications on Israeli democracy, in multiple dimensions," he says.

For one thing, to get out of military service you can't hold a job. That's seen as a drag on the economy and a growing financial burden for the rest of the nation. What's more, Haredi political power has grown along with its population, and has become crucial to Netanyahu's coalition.

"[Netanyahu's] entire political career, there was a sort of over-arching directive: Preserve the alliance with the ultra-Orthodox at all costs, because this alliance preserves his grip over power," says Plesner.

For ultra-Orthodox leaders the fight is existential. The word Haredi means one who trembles before God. They reject engagement with the modern world and fear that exposing young men to it through the military will end their way of life.

But in some corners, change is coming, slowly.

Rabbi Yonatan Reiss, who co-founded Yeshiva Chedvata, stands for a portrait in the study hall at the yeshiva in Gan Yavne, Israel, on March 20. The school aims to be a bridge between the ultra-Orthodox and secular military culture.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Rabbi Yonatan Reiss, who co-founded Yeshiva Chedvata, stands for a portrait in the study hall at the yeshiva in Gan Yavne, Israel, on March 20. The school aims to be a bridge between the ultra-Orthodox and secular military culture.
Students attend a lecture from a visiting rabbi in the study hall at Yeshiva Chedvata in Gan Yavne, Israel, on March 20.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Students attend a lecture from a visiting rabbi in the study hall at Yeshiva Chedvata in Gan Yavne, Israel, on March 20.

There are options for religious men who want to serve

On a recent sunny day, a group of young men in black pants and white t-shirts played a boisterous game of soccer on a grassy campus 45 minutes south of Tel Aviv. They were on a break between classes at Yeshiva Chedvata, which seeks to be a bridge between the ultra-Orthodox and secular military culture.

"As the Haredim grows and grows, there are a lot of young people who don't want to study the Torah all the time," says Rabbi Yonatan Reiss, who co-founded this yeshiva seven years ago, essentially for people like himself.

After high school, instead of religious study he went to Brazil, created a business and stayed several years. When he returned to Israel, the military tracked him down and forced him to enlist. Reiss says that's when he realized religious young men were not prepared for military service, or other jobs.

So here, and at two other yeshivas he runs, there are classes in math, English, and computer science. All students join the military, and use the skills they've learned. Rabbi Reiss says the Hamas attack in October only confirmed the need for this.

"The entire Israeli society knew what to do and where they had to go serve," he says. "But many ultra-Orthodox were embarrassed, wondering 'What can we do?'"

Binyamin Savrasov, 19, a student at Yeshiva Chedvata, sits for a portrait in a classroom at the yeshiva on March 20. "If it's not you, it's your brothers or your cousins or someone who's not as religious as you. So you're just being selfish," he says about serving.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Binyamin Savrasov, 19, a student at Yeshiva Chedvata, sits for a portrait in a classroom at the yeshiva on March 20. "If it's not you, it's your brothers or your cousins or someone who's not as religious as you. So you're just being selfish," he says about serving.
David Tvito, 21, a student at Yeshiva Chedvata, stands for a portrait at the yeshiva in Gan Yavne, Israel, on March 20.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
David Tvito, 21, a student at Yeshiva Chedvata, stands for a portrait at the yeshiva in Gan Yavne, Israel, on March 20.

Outside a classroom, 21-year-old David Tvito says after studying the Torah for six years he felt he wasn't doing as well as others, so decided to make a change. At first his parents were disappointed, but they've come around. They like that "I'm really succeeding in it, and I'm getting good grades," he says.

Binyamin Savrasov, 19, says he's not from the most religious family, and actually has two older brothers who served in the army. But it didn't go over well when their ultra-Orthodox community found out they were enlisting.

"Some neighbors were kind of mean to us and like, you know, throw eggs on our cars," he says.

He's confident he can keep his religion while in the military, and thinks it's only right to enlist. "If it's not you, it's your brothers or your cousins or someone who's not as religious as you. So you're just being selfish," he says.

The stigma around military service may fade slowly

Nechumi Yaffe of Tel Aviv University is ultra-Orthodox herself, and says there's been a steep social price for those who join the Israeli military.

"Going to the army will damage their ability to marry," she says. "It will damage their relationship in the family."

She believes it will be good for the community to "normalize" as more people are drafted. But she thinks Israelis don't understand how challenging that process may be for young men who've been so socially isolated, with little to no education on human rights.

Israeli soldiers walk through the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 21.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Israeli soldiers walk through the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 21.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men shop for vegetables at a store in Bnei Brak, Israel, on March 21.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men shop for vegetables at a store in Bnei Brak, Israel, on March 21.

"I think the Israeli society should ask itself, actually, do you want to see them in the army?" she says. "You know, [Israelis] want to see blood. They want to see them in uniform, shooting. I don't think it's a great idea."

She suggests starting some off as truck drivers or cooks, while they adapt to a secular world.

Another challenge, she says, is that despite warmer attitudes toward the military since the Hamas assault, people returning to the community after service still face stigma.

Back in Bnei Brak, Mordechai Porat, 36, is one of the ultra-Orthodox who volunteered for duty last October.

"I felt like a lion in a cage. I had to do something," he says.

He's a social worker, and since November has been providing therapy at a nearby military base. Porat's father told him to never wear his green fatigues in the city, so he changes back into a black jacket before coming home. He makes sure to keep his military dog tag hidden underneath his collar.

Mordechai Porat, 36, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who volunteered for duty last October, stands for a portrait while wearing his dog tags in Bnei Brak on March 21.
/ Tamir Kalifa for NPR
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Tamir Kalifa for NPR
Mordechai Porat, 36, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who volunteered for duty last October, stands for a portrait while wearing his dog tags in Bnei Brak on March 21.

But even with this low profile, he says he's paid a price. "My [kindergarten age] son has still not been accepted into the community school," he says.

Porat thinks most ultra-Orthodox will never join the military. And he understands Israelis have run out of patience over the exemption, but says they need to be patient a while longer. He's sure more and more people will consider enlisting over time.

"But if people are forced into it, they'll just push back," he says.

Alon Avital and Itay Stern contributed reporting for this story. contributed to this story

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Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
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