In normal times the Ultra-Orthodox Jews of Israel known as Haredim are excused from military service and are not required to fight for their country. But these are not normal times. Since the October 7 Hamas invasion of Israel, at least 2,000 Haredi men have volunteered to serve with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during the war on Hamas, according to an article by Religion News Service.
The IDF has accepted the volunteers despite the fact that they’ve never been conscripted; had any military experience and many were over the usual draft age. Most will serve in non-combat roles such as drivers, cooks or medical support. But their offer to help is being hailed as a positive development in bringing national unity.
One volunteer who would usually be working while also focusing on his Torah studies told Religion News Service that “This isn’t a drill. This is an actual war. During wartime, we must all do the maximum. Anyone who isn’t studying Torah full time should contribute.”
The Haredi men’s sudden eagerness to serve is significant politically and socially. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, young Haredim have been exempt from the mandatory military service required of their non-Haredi counterparts. Most Israeli men and women must put in around two and a half years military service. The exemption for the Ultra Orthodox has caused deep resentment. Haredi rabbis insist that fervent prayer for Israel’s security is just as important as military service.
Religion News Service reports that: “Although Israel’s High Court struck down the exemption in 2017 and ordered the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to create a new, more equitable military draft, the Knesset has never complied with the court’s order. Instead, Haredi parliamentarians are pressing for a permanent exemption for all full-time students at religious schools known as yeshiva.”
The news outlet adds that: “According to a recent survey by Hiddush, an organisation that advocates for religious freedom in Israel, 78% of the Israeli public supports the conscription of yeshiva students, either en masse or according to an annual quota that would exempt the most promising students and draft the rest.”
The willingness to share the military burden even briefly “is a positive development,” said Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-governmental research organisation. “There is a lot of tension over the fact that Haredim barely serve in the IDF, so the volunteers provide a sense of solidarity with the general society. During these horrible days of war, it gives a lot of people in general society a bit of hope. It also gives the volunteers a feeling of belonging to the state of Israel. It’s not just a declaration. It’s a fact.”
Mr. Malach told Religion News Service that most of the Haredi military volunteers are from the “more modern” segment of Haredi society. Most are already in the workforce, having completed their full-time Torah study while in their mid-to-late 20s or 30s.
The initiative to recruit Haredi men came largely from Haredi Rabbi Ram Moshe Ravad, a former chief rabbi of the Israeli air force. Soon after the war began, a handful of men no longer involved in formal study in a yeshiva asked the rabbi how they might volunteer. Within a few hours of the Hamas attack, some 450 had expressed interest and the number has been increasing ever since.
“People think that Haredim are against the army. That’s not true. They’re in favor of Torah learning. If it’s between studying Torah or being drafted into the army, they’ll pick Torah study,” Rabbi Ravad explained.