Anshel Pfeffer writes in Haaretz
Early on in the Israel-Hamas war, a few dozen ultra-Orthodox men volunteered to join the Israel Defense Forces. It was a brilliant publicity stunt and their pictures at an IDF induction base in their new uniforms featured prominently in all the news organizations – especially the 40-year-old son of Shas leader Arye Dery.
Finally it was happening: the Haredi community that for 75 years had remained distant from matters of state was prepared to do its bit sharing the national security burden. Yet the truth was that none of the not-so-young men were destined for boot camp in one of the IDF’s combat units. Within a few weeks, most of them were back in civilian life. They will occasionally be called up for light reserve duty in the Military Rabbinate corps.
A total of 450 Haredi men took the opportunity to gain the social cachet of having “served” in this way. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Haredi yeshiva students remain exempt from the draft, even though the High Court of Justice has ruled that this exemption is unconstitutional as it discriminates against those who do serve.
Like many other Israeli controversies, this one would have been set aside during wartime – Israel has far more pressing issues right now – if it weren’t for a new bill being prepared for swift legislation in the Knesset. If passed, this bill will extend the period of compulsory service for young men to three years (it’s currently 32 months), while the age at which former conscripts can be called up for the reserves will be 45 (instead of the current 40). And while most active reservists previously did 25 days of operational duty every three years, now they will be liable to do 40 days annually
Many reservists have already spent four months in uniform since the war began – and by all accounts, the motivation to turn up for duty has been high following Oct. 7, and remains so. But the prospect of having to do a lot more reserve duty in the years to come, when tensions will likely remain much higher than before the war not just in Gaza but on the northern front and the West Bank too, has put the spotlight back on those who won’t be spending long months on patrol.
So far, the Haredi leadership has tried to lower its profile on the matter. Its leaders have no intention of allowing their students to enlist – it would empty the yeshivas and end their control over the young men in their communities – but the politicians are savvy enough to know that there’s no way they can win this battle in the court of public opinion.
However, while they can simply refuse to give interviews for a period, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who relies on them as crucial ruling coalition partners, is exposed. Or as one minister put it: “Netanyahu is trying to make a comeback in the polls, but his problem is not only that Israelis don’t want him as prime minister after Oct. 7. Now they don’t want his partners either, and they’re dragging each other down.”