• Mon. May 27th, 2024

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, exempt from military service, now enlisting


Dec 28, 2023


SHURA MILITARY BASE, Israel — Mordechai Porat leaves his home each morning in a crisp black suit and hat. It isn’t until he arrives at this army base in central Israel that he changes into his green military fatigues.

Porat, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, doesn’t want his family or neighbors in Bnei Brak spotting him in uniform and discovering his secret: He has enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces.

The 36-year-old social worker is one of a growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredim, who have responded to the Hamas attack of Oct. 7 by enlisting in Israel’s campaign to eradicate the militant group, sometimes quietly, despite the community’s exemption from military service.

Since that surprise attack, when Hamas and allied fighters streamed out of Gaza, killing around 1,200 people and taking 240 more hostage, volunteers from all walks of Israeli life have sought to join the war effort. But the 2,000 new Haredi applicants stand out.

Their exemption from mandatory conscription has long been a point of contention in a country where military service is an integral part of the national identity. It led to the downfall of the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2019, the start of a four-year election crisis.

The Haredim have adamantly opposed being made to serve, on the grounds that they should be spending all available time studying the Torah. They worry that young Haredim sent to the army may never return to their religious duties.

Their size and clout have led Israeli leaders to cater to their demands. They’ve also been excused from observing national education standards and paying some taxes.

The rush now to enlist, while still taboo among some Haredim, is showing how the Hamas attack and Israel’s war, in which its forces have killed 21,320 and injured 55,603 people in Gaza, are reshaping, even drawing together, disparate segments of this divided country, including along some of its deepest fault lines.

“We have the Haredi community legitimizing the army, the Haredi community lowering their stigma to boys that are enlisting,” said Nechumi Yaffe, a lecturer in the School of Social and Policy Studies at Tel Aviv University. “We have the Haredi community saying yes, it is very important to have an army and I would be more willing to draft myself.”

Yaffe polled Haredim on their attitudes about the military in March 2022 and again after Oct. 7. In 2022, 35 percent strongly agreed that they should contribute to Israel’s defense. After the attacks, that rose to 49 percent.

After Oct. 7, the IDF tasked a Haredi rabbi to recruit from the community. Rami Ravad, 65, had served in the Israeli air force. He put out a call on WhatsApp. Within hours, he said, more than 400 people had responded. Soon more than 1,000 were eager to sign up.

Messaging was crucial, Ravad said. He assured candidates who were still in yeshiva, or religious school, that they would not have to drop out. “The Haredi ideology is not against the idea of the army,” he said. The Torah includes accounts of soldiers and war. “But you can’t force them.”

Of the 2,000 Haredi applicants since Oct. 7, the IDF says, 450 have been accepted. That’s a small fraction of the military, which has an estimated 170,000 active-duty personnel. But it’s a huge shift for the community, Yaffe said. Now, she said, “there’s going to be a lot of pressure to change” the general exemption law.

The Haredi were perhaps never more separate from Israeli society than on Oct. 7. It was the Jewish Sabbath and also the joyous holiday of Simchat Torah. Members of the community woke up to more rocket sirens than usual, but because they refrain on Shabbat from using electricity, they had no way of knowing the cause.

“I didn’t know that as I was dancing, others were crying,” Porat said.

He wanted to help. As a social worker, he believed, he could support soldiers. His wife told him he was crazy. Enlisting, she predicted, would harm the family’s standing in the community.

Porat signed up in mid-October. He completed two weeks of military training and was assigned to provide psychological counseling to soldiers who handle the bodies of the dead.

Despite his efforts to hide his new job, word has started to circulate in his community. His son was rejected from two religious schools without explanation.

“I knew there would be harsh consequences I had to consider,” Porat said. Still, he said, “it was worth it.”

During training, the enlistees learn to wield a weapon, complete obstacle courses and become familiar with their officers, many of whom are a decade younger. Graduates have been assigned to be drivers, cooks and guards. Some have been tasked with preparing corpses for burial, a sacred practice embedded in Jewish law.

When Benzi Schwartz enlisted, relatives emailed him sermons to voice their disapproval. Schwartz, who is almost 40, isn’t trained to serve in combat, but he wishes he could.

The Israeli campaign has destroyed much of Gaza. More than 1.8 million Gazans have fled their homes. They’re suffering shortages of water, food and shelter, sharply limited health care and cuts to power and communications. International aid organizations warn of rising starvation.

Schwartz said he wholeheartedly supports the war effort.

“I have no sympathy for the Gazans who woke up on Oct. 7 and walked, some of them on their crutches, to kill, rape and torture Jews,” he said. “In any religion, there’s a clear principle: ‘He who comes to kill you, rise up early to kill him.’”

Others see more nuance but say it’s ultimately a matter of survival. Nathan Rakov, a British citizen who has lived in Israel most of his life, has been accepted into the military and is waiting to be assigned a role.

“Anyone innocent who dies is a painful and unfair thing,” he said. “On the other hand, the value of preserving my life, that of my children and that of my brothers and sisters is also high — as a human being, as a Jew and as a religious man.”

Rakov said the aftermath of Oct. 7 has made him feel as patriotic as he feels religious. “Do I feel more Israeli now?” he asked. “The answer is yes.”


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