Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leaders failed. That’s why they may stick with Netanyahu

The Haredim expected the court to enlist its youth, but even more troubling are the budget cuts that sustain their community

Yisrael Frey

Ultra-Orthodox men protest in Bnei Brak, Israel, on 27 June following a ruling requiring the state to begin drafting seminary students into the military (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)
Ultra-Orthodox men protest in Bnei Brak, Israel, on 27 June following a ruling requiring the state to begin drafting seminary students into the military (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox public and leadership were prepared for the High Court’s verdict on Tuesday.

They were not surprised that the court ruled members of their community were not exempt from military service.

They expected this decision, knowing which way it was heading, and some even anticipated a worse outcome.

The court also ruled that the state could no longer fund ultra-Orthodox education services, a severe blow to a community reliant on such aid. But some ultra-Orthodox Jews, known in Hebrew as the Haredim, had feared the court would impose severe sanctions on students of religious seminaries, yeshivas, who refuse to enlist.

In the end, the court did not mandate such harsh penalties for the students. There is no indication refuseniks will be barred from leaving the country. Military jeeps are not about to appear on the streets of Bnei Brak, the centre of Israeli Haredim, to forcibly recruit the community’s youth.

Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, Israeli youth have been conscripted into military service upon leaving school, except Palestinian citizens, who were considered a threat and difficult to enlist, and the Haredim, whose young men wished to continue their religious education.

Last summer, the law granting the Haredim exemption from conscription expired. A few months later came the 7 October Hamas-led attack and Israel’s war on Gaza. War fatigue increased calls for more manpower, and pressure grew on authorities to recruit the estimated 63,000 yeshiva students for military service.

Ultra-Orthodox society has navigated this struggle with its eyes open. Though the war on Gaza intensified the issue, the Haredim have long been caught in this predicament, worsened by poor decisions and negligence.

The High Court has been adjudicating petitions on recruiting Haredim for about 20 years.

In Israel’s early decades, there was an unofficial understanding between the ultra-Orthodox and the state. The Haredim wanted – and largely still want – to devote their lives to religion, unconcerned with matters of state.

Yet, about 20 years ago, questions arose in Israeli society about how equal all citizens were under the law, arguments that undermined the trust between the state and the Haredim.

Critics of the Haredim questioned how all Israelis could be considered equal if some sent their children to the army, with all the danger that entailed, while others did not.

Contrasting tactics

The ultra-Orthodox had a fundamental problem with the introduction of this principle into the discourse. Haredi society struggled to agree on how to approach the issue. Some argued for a pragmatic approach, while others were more radical.

The pragmatists believed in cooperating to some extent with the state. They thought the ultra-Orthodox should engage in dialogue with the state and a draft committee was even convened to explore ways to enlist some of the Haredim. But none of this actually led to any conscription.

The pragmatists sought to create a facade of compliance, working with the state to craft laws that appeared to address the principle of equality. This effort resulted in the founding of Netzah Yehuda, a battalion labelled as ultra-Orthodox but which actually included all kinds of disaffected youth, many of whom were not truly Haredi.

The pragmatists played the game by echoing the language of the state’s demands. It was all a bluff.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish students study the Torah at the Ponevezh Yeshiva in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak on 27 February (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish students study the Torah at the Ponevezh Yeshiva in the city of Bnei Brak on 27 February (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

The radical side chose resistance, employing a variety of arguments. Leading Haredi rabbis predicted that if the ultra-Orthodox played by the state’s rules, the latter would eventually prevail, resulting in the cancellation of the preexisting arrangements and causing significant harm to the ultra-Orthodox community. This argument has been borne out to some extent.

Others insisted that the Haredim could be protected if solidarity was preserved within the ultra-Orthodox community. There was a suspicion that students from elite yeshivas in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, and Ponevezh would avoid enlistment, while those from more marginalised communities, like Mizrahi Jews in outlying areas, would be conscripted.

Though the majority of the ultra-Orthodox public leaned towards the pragmatist side of the argument, they ultimately conceded to the radicals, who refused to support any conscription law or even pay lip service to the idea.

Either way, as the dust settles on Tuesday’s ruling, it is clear that both the pragmatists and the radicals have failed completely.

Unsupportive allies

Despite expecting the court’s ruling, the Haredim are very frustrated.

They assumed that things would turn out differently after the establishment of a fully right-wing government, which they believed would ensure every party got what it wanted.

The settlers would get more settlements in the occupied West Bank, parts of which would be annexed by the Israeli state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would prevail in his struggles against the judicial system and overcome the corruption charges he faces.

Meanwhile, the Haredim believed they would get a solution for the conscription problem, with Netanyahu bending the judicial system to their will as well as securing a larger budget for their communities.

In reality, this dream government did not deliver for the Haredim. The Haredi parties’ right-wing coalition partners quickly decided to seize what they could, while Netanyahu placed various obstacles in the way of the Haredim achieving their goals.

Netzah Yehuda: The ultra-Orthodox Israeli army unit set to be blacklisted by the US

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Then came October 7. Public demand for mandatory military recruitment of ultra-Orthodox conscripts mushroomed despite it barely being considered when secular, militaristic and more left-wing parties were in power between 2021 and 2022.

Today, even within the government, the ultra-Orthodox lack support for their opposition to the conscription law.

Netanyahu has been unable to drum up backing for his Haredi partners because it clashes with the interests of the far right, who have suddenly become knights in shining armour for the militarists and liberals who have long resented the Haredim for not serving in the army.

The far-right parties are in a bind: they want to preserve their government, but exempting the Haredim contradicts the vision they sell to their supporters.

The far-right narrative demands fidelity to the sanctity of weapons and military service and whatever will produce more soldiers who will kill more Palestinians.

The opposition liberal camp sees this struggle as an opportunity to bring down the government but remains passive. Opposition parties are well versed in screaming about Netanyahu’s various failures but cannot offer a new idea or narrative to resolve the current situation with the Haredim and persuade them to abandon the governing coalition.

Netanyahu is the only political figure currently moving the pieces on the board. All others are busy reacting to him or dancing to his tune, so no alternative solution to the current government is forthcoming.

Recipe for destruction

Despite the focus on conscription, the Haredim’s issue extends beyond just military service. A more pressing concern is the budget for Haredi society, given that conscription poses no real legal threat to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Budgets, however, are an entirely different matter. Haredi society’s reliance on massive state budgets is so significant that people would starve without that funding. The Haredim never imagined themselves in such a situation, especially not under this government.

Budgets for the Haredi educational systems are in danger due to conflicts with the finance ministry, led by far-right figurehead Bezalel Smotrich, and the attorney general.

The Haredi education budget is the lifeblood of their society, providing an unregulated and infinite river of funding for various purposes. However, disputes with the finance ministry are obstructing the release of large sums.

The pressures exerted on the ultra-Orthodox leadership in the wake of the conscription law and the budget freeze could lead to the dissolution of the government.

Reactions from Haredi political leaders to the court ruling suggest this is possible, with little likelihood that this government will restore significant education funding and pass a law exempting the Haredim from conscription.

But the weakness of the ultra-Orthodox leadership could also lead the other way to their remaining in the government.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man standing at the Israeli army recruitment office in Jerusalem on 25 June (Reuters/Saeed Qaq/NurPhoto)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man standing near the Israeli army recruitment office in Jerusalem on 25 June (Reuters/Saeed Qaq/NurPhoto)

Today, the Haredi political leadership is relatively weak compared with the community’s rabbinic, spiritual and Torah leadership. In addition, the bond between the ultra-Orthodox and the other elements of the current government coalition is now much stronger than the control the Haredi leadership traditionally wielded over their flock.

Previously, the ultra-Orthodox always distanced themselves from Israeli politics. They focused solely on their own affairs and never aspired to engage with the pillars of Israeli democracy or constitutional issues. Now, they find themselves at the centre of the Israeli political debate, which is problematic for them.

Mass recruitment of yeshiva students into the army is currently unrealistic. The army is simply not equipped to handle the very specific needs of tens of thousands of highly religious youth.

Meanwhile, a broad consensus has emerged among the Israeli public, crossing political boundaries of right and left, regarding the recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox. This consensus makes it difficult for them to extricate themselves from the current situation.

In addition, the Haredim urgently need to find a resolution with Smotrich’s finance ministry over education funding.

The old methods the ultra-Orthodox community used to deal with politics and Israeli society are no longer sufficient to achieve their aims. While these factors create a dynamic that could lead to the government dissolving, they could also mean the opposite.

Bnei Brak, Israel

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