newsIsrael at War

Sephardic chief rabbi: ‘If they try to force haredim to enlist, we’ll go abroad’

"All these secularists do not understand that without the kollels and yeshivot the army would not have been successful," Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said.

Sephardic Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends a ceremony in memory of his father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in Jerusalem, Oct. 22, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Sephardic Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attends a ceremony in memory of his father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in Jerusalem, Oct. 22, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef threatened on Saturday evening that if ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, Jews are forced to enlist in the military they will leave the country.

“If they are forced to go to the army—we will all travel abroad,” he said during his weekly lecture, referring to a long-standing controversy that has recently heated up in Israel following the Oct. 7 massacre.

Yosef compared the full-time students at yeshivot and kollels [similar to yeshivot but generally for married men] to the Tribe of Levi in the Bible, who were exempt from military service as their mission was to teach and instruct in the law.

“All these secularists do not understand that without the kollels and yeshivot the army would not have been successful—the soldiers are only successful thanks to the people of the Torah,” said the chief rabbi, who has held the position since 2013.

“We saw how the army succeeded on Simchat Torah,” he added, referring to the Jewish holiday that fell this year on Oct. 7, the day Hamas invaded Israel, killing around 1,200 people. It took many hours for the IDF to organize and mount a successful counterattack and several days before the military cleared the area of terrorists.

The chief rabbi’s comments gained support from Degel HaTorah, one of the parties making up the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism faction in the Knesset.

“Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef is right. We have no right to exist as a nation, God forbid, in the Land of Israel, without Torah scholars whose Torah is their labor,” the party said. “This is the Torah and these are its students, which is what sustained us through thousands of years of exile and many troubles that we endured, and thanks to God we survived and returned to our country.”

Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid Party, who has remained outside of the unity wartime government to lead the opposition, attacked Yosef’s comments:

“Rabbi Yosef’s words are a disgrace and an insult to the IDF soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the defense of the state. Rabbi Yosef is a civil servant with a salary from the state. He cannot threaten the state. Whoever shirks the IDF will not receive a penny from the State of Israel.”

National Union Party head Benny Gantz, a member of the War Cabinet, also criticized Yosef’s statement, saying, “After 2,000 years of exile we returned to our country. We will fight for it and never abandon it. Rabbi Yosef’s words are a moral injury to the Israeli state and society.

“Everyone should take part in the sacred right to serve and fight for our country, especially in this difficult time. Our ultra-Orthodox brothers too,” he said.

Haredi enlistment became a hot-button issue after Defense Minister Yoav Gallant lobbed a political grenade in a Feb. 28 press conference, demanding that every member of the government must support an (ultra-Orthodox) conscription law if it is to win his support.

The political fallout was immediate, with representatives from United Torah Judaism telling the Walla news site, “This is a hot potato that can drag us to the elections within a month.”

Gallant’s ultimatum came in the wake of High Court hearings on Feb. 26 regarding petitions calling on it to force the government to recruit haredi men into the IDF.

In 2017, the High Court invalidated a 2014 conscription law, which provided broad exemptions to ultra-Orthodox students in yeshivot, arguing it created inequality.

However, over the years the court has granted over a dozen extensions to the government to give it time to resolve the highly contentious issue.

With the final extension expiring last June, the government approved a decision authorizing Gallant as defense minister to order the IDF not to enforce the recruitment of haredi students.

Although the expiration of that government decision is fast approaching—the end of March—those opposing the government’s move petitioned the court that it should be annulled immediately as it contravenes the Defense Service Law, which demands recruitment procedures be applied equally to all eligible citizens.

Hours after the hearing, the court issued an interim order preventing any reduction of the IDF service period, or any other relevant period, regarding the recruitment and service of yeshivah students. The court required the government to respond by March 24.

Haredi leadership discourages military service, seeing it as corrupting and a distraction from Torah study.

On March 3, hundreds of haredim blocked Route 4 for several hours in a section bordering Bnei Barak, an ultra-Orthodox city east of Tel Aviv. Some shouted, “We will die and not enlist.”

In 2021, 87% of haredi 18-year-old men didn’t enlist, while 86% of non-haredi Jewish 18-year-old men did. The disparity has caused sharp friction within Israeli society, with the majority dissatisfied that the burden of service is not distributed equally.

The shock of Oct. 7 has exacerbated the problem, leading to widespread calls for an end to blanket exemption from IDF service for haredim. Adding to the pressure is the realization that the military requires a larger standing army to deal with multiple fronts.

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