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In Israel, the war puts the ultraorthodox under pressure

Photo: Oren Ziv Agence France-Presse The subject has gained momentum after several demonstrations in recent days and is shaking the fragile coalition of Mr. Netanyahu, summoned to act in the name of “social equity” in the country.

Emmanuel Duparcq – Agence France-Presse and Michaël Blum – Agence France-Presse in Jerusalem

6:50 p.m.

  • Middle East

In the midst of the war in Gaza and at a time of general mobilization in Israel, anger is rising against the ultra-Orthodox, protected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who refuse to send their children to the army to not to lose their religious “purity”.

The subject has gained momentum after several demonstrations in recent days and is shaking the fragile coalition of Mr. Netanyahu, summoned to act in the name of “social equity” in the country.

“You lazy people! », “Pests! “: in the green center of Jerusalem, a few young Israelis let loose on Monday in front of a small group of around twenty ultra-Orthodox people in traditional dress – black jacket and pants, white shirt, long beards and flat hats – who came to taunt their manifestation by praying, dancing and singing at the top of their lungs: “Rather die than go to the army! »

About twenty meters away, nearly a thousand people, Israeli flags in hand, were gathered to demand that the government “finally” force the haredim (“Those who fear God”) ) to do their military service.

Among them, many reservist soldiers like Oren Shvill, a 52-year-old engineer living in a settlement in the occupied West Bank. Shortly after the unprecedented Hamas attack in Israel on October 7, he came to reunite with his unit like some 340,000 reservists. “My wife can’t sleep. That's how it is when you're a normal Israeli. And all of society must contribute,” he asserts.

It was in 1948, at the time of the creation of the State of Israel, that haredim studying full-time in yeshivot (institutes of Talmudic studies) were exempt from military service. At the time, the aim was to enable an elite of 400 young people to preserve the world of studies of sacred texts, which was largely decimated during the Shoah.

“Carry the Burden”

But there are now 1.3 million haredim, with a fertility rate of more than six children per woman, compared to 2.5 on average in the country. And the numbers are swelling: last year, 66,000 haredim aged 18 to 26 were exempt from military service.

Most haredim demand that this exemption be maintained for all students, deeming the army incompatible with their system of values, where only the authority of God prevails.

And Benjamin Netanyahu takes great care of them, the two major ultraorthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, being members of his government which they can bring down at any time. In May 2023, the government approved an unprecedented budget of almost one billion euros (3.7 billion shekels) for yeshivot.

The debate on military service has rebounded with the security trauma of October 7. Then when the army announced that, in order to have more troops available, it wanted to extend its duration (from 32 to 36 months for men) and that of the commitment of reservists.

This week he began to shake up the government: On Wednesday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant dropped a minor political bombshell and appeared to defy his prime minister by announcing a reform of military service aimed at including the haredim, and demanded that the entire government support it. “Everyone must bear the burden,” he asserted.

Mr. Netanyahu announced the next day his intention to “find an agreement” to integrate the haredim into the army, without imploding the coalition and provoking elections “in the middle of war” which would “block everything”, he stressed.

“Fish out of water”

Haredim, many of whom refuse modernity, live and marry within their communities, fear seeing their children lose their religious “purity” and move away from their religious and traditional values ​​by confronting the rest of the community. society to the army. They particularly fear mixing men and women in public, which is “prohibited by the Torah,” according to Shmuel, 23, a student at the Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem.

“We will fight this at all costs. Taking a boy out of yeshiva is impossible, it’s like taking a fish out of water, in one minute he dies,” warns Yehuda Chen, another haredim from Jerusalem.

But it's not a homogeneous world: according to Tomer Persico, a religion researcher at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, “20 to 30 percent” of haredim have moved closer to the rest of society over the past 30 years by working in companies, or via civil service or social activities.

Among them, a little over a thousand join the army each year, at the risk of being ostracized by their communities. There were more requests after October 7, but no mass integration.

The army is in no hurry to enlist them. “They are not good fighters, and we do not have the time, in the middle of a war, to take months to train people without education” other than religious, slips a former high-ranking officer.

Many observers warn against a sudden and general obligation, which will be refused and risks setting fire to the government or the strongholds of the haredim.

Betzalel Cohen, a moderate ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem, pleads for the state and the haredim to agree on “reasonable” and progressive objectives for integrating young people into the army, which should also do its part, in agreeing, for example, to have more single-sex units.

Tomer Persico doesn't foresee any upheaval in the short term, but rather “an arrangement.” According to him, “the government will obtain a new delay or save time by finding a form of civil service” acceptable to the haredim.

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116