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Ultra-Orthodox Jews Have Helped Netanyahu Stay in Power. That May Be Changing.

In World
April 03, 2024

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could soon be ousted from power by a controversy over the most entrenched and right-wing faction in his coalition-government—ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The ultra-Orthodox, also known as the Haredim, have been exempt from military service, as well as many other social and political obligations, since the founding of Israel as a state in 1948. Last month, a high court ruled that the military exemption must end. The ruling will be appealed, but meanwhile the Haredim’s yeshivas—the hundreds of schools where young men study the Torah (and little or nothing else)—will lose their government funding.

Now Netanyahu must decide whether to appeal the court’s ruling or let it slide and suffer the consequences. And there are potentially huge consequences, both for Israel’s war in Gaza and for Netanyahu himself.

The Haredim’s privileged status in Israel has become increasingly unpopular since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack. As the ensuing war has engaged all other Israelis, as the call-up of reservists has weakened the country’s economy, and as soldiers are killed in battle, the exemption from service for one religious sect has stirred deep resentment among the secular and more conventionally religious Israelis. A recent poll shows that 70 percent of the population wants the exemptions ended.

Netanyahu’s coalition, which put him back in power early last year, consists entirely of factions to the right of his own quite right-wing Likud party. If Netanyahu lets this draft exemption expire, he will alienate the ultra-Orthodox factions that support him; if he extends it, he will alienate the secular Jews that support him. Either way, he could be in trouble. His coalition’s majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is narrow. If just five of his partners were to resign, as some are threatening to do over the exemption issue, he would lose his majority. New elections, which otherwise aren’t scheduled to take place until 2026, would be held. Polls indicate that he would lose.

It’s not clear that his far-right partners will actually make good on their threats to resign. They know that, whoever replaces Netanyahu, they will not be a part of the new prime minister’s coalition. Thus, quitting the government would mean losing power, possibly forever. The question is whether they would choose to suffer that loss even over a principle that some of them consider holy.

One of Israel’s two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef, said last month that the ultra-Orthodox “will all move abroad” if they are forced to enlist in the military. Yair Lapid, Israeli’s opposition leader, laughed at the threat, telling Army Radio, “If the Haredim go abroad, they will find that the ultra-Orthodox there work for a living.” Most of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel receive subsidies from the state.

Haredi are visually distinctive—the men with their side curls, black frocks, and high hats, like their ancestors in medieval Europe; the women with their wigs and modest long dresses—and they remain socially isolated, living in their own neighborhoods, mixing with others as little as possible.

When David Ben-Gurion became Israel’s first prime minister, he promised the Orthodox party, then called the Agudath, that the Orthodox would be given autonomy in religious education—including an exemption of yeshiva students from the military draft. He made these pledges during his campaign for United Nations recognition of Israel as a state, so that the world’s leading Jewish organizations would be united in their push for recognition. (The ultra-Orthodox were, and still are, unenthusiastic about the idea of a Jewish state.)

There was widespread emotional support for the ultra-Orthodox at the time. Most of them were bedraggled, impoverished; very few of them had survived the Holocaust. The Jews who had lived, and who had made it to Israel as their new home, felt an attachment to the mythic Jewish past that they represented—a “Fiddler on the Roof factor,” as an essayist in the Jerusalem Post later referred to it—and a certain amount of “survivor’s guilt.”

The more canny leaders of the Agudath played on this attachment, presenting themselves, for the most part sincerely, as the “authentic” Jews, without whom Israel would lack the soul of a Jewish state.

Indulging the ultra-Orthodox posed no great cost to Israel’s budget or to its national security at the time. In 1949 there were 40,000 ultra-Orthodox people in Israel, just 5 percent of its Jewish population. Just 400 draft-age men were studying in the yeshivas.

Now Israel has more than 1 million Haredim, comprising 13 percent of Israel’s population of nearly 10 million. There are 66,000 draft-age men in the yeshivas. About 1,000 of these men have joined the army—but this amounts to less than 1 percent of its ranks. If just 20,000 of those men joined the army, there would be no need to call up any more reservists.

The ultra-Orthodox community has grown in part because many members have produced large families. State subsidies for these families grew in the 1970s and ’80s, under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel’s first leader from the Likud party, who grasped that he could swell the ranks of his party by appealing to and recruiting the growing number of Haredim.

Netanyahu has built on Begin’s insight. To secure his current government, he promised the Haredim parties that he would protect their exemption from the draft as a top priority.

That pledge is now on the line.

The war in Gaza has intensified the controversy, but certain demographic trends related to the ultra-Orthodox have alarmed many Israelis for some time. As Ethan Bronner, the Jerusalem bureau chief for Bloomberg News, has reported, half of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox are unemployed; just 14 percent have college degrees. More alarming, a quarter of Israeli children under the age of 4 are ultra-Orthodox—which raises “questions,” Bronner writes, “about how the society will support itself in the future.”

This is far from the first time that the Haredim’s privileges—which were once accepted—have sparked fears of danger. During the COVID-19 crisis, many ultra-Orthodox refused to get vaccinated, continued to attend large, crowded Jewish weddings and holiday ceremonies, and prioritized rabbis’ biblical interpretations over doctors’ advice, even though many people died as a result.

Back in 1950, Yitzhak Meir-Levin, the Israeli government’s Haredi welfare minister, said at a Cabinet meeting, “If we face the choice of transgressing the laws of Moses or the laws of the state, we will violate the laws of the state, not those of Moses.” Most Haredi today are making the same choice.

The war has rendered inevitable a conflict about these choices. As Bronner writes in Bloomberg, Israel’s “growing number of technocrats, business leaders, and academics”—who have transformed the country into one of the most prosperous and technically advanced in the world—see the war in Gaza “as the opportunity to confront the risk of Haredim pulling the country toward theocratic penury.”

In other words, the current standoff over the Haredim isn’t about just Netanyahu’s political longevity or the Israeli army’s shortage of troops. It’s also about the future of Israel itself.

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