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Influential Shas rabbis strongly reject compromise on IDF draft law

Rabbis write they would rather go "to prison" than enlist in army

Ultra orthodox Jewish rabbis attend a prayer and commemoration rally attended by thousands marking one year since the death of late Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, at the Arena in Jerusalem. Sept. 28 , 2014 (Photo: Flash90).

A group of influential ultra-Orthodox Sephardic rabbis published a sharply-worded letter condemning any compromise on the new IDF draft law on Sunday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with ultra-Orthodox community representatives to find a solution to the brewing political crisis.

“The state decided to assimilate the ultra-Orthodox into the secular culture,” the rabbis charged.

The letter was signed by 18 influential rabbis affiliated with the Shas movement, an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) party created by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in the 1980s to represent the interests of Israel’s ultra-religious and traditional population of Middle Eastern descent.

Among the signees was Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was named after his grandfather and is the son of the current Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.

The letter marks a significant escalation in rhetoric as the rabbis strongly condemned any form of compromise, asserting that even Haredi should not enlist in the army, even if they are not engaged in yeshiva studies.

“Any compromise will lead to destruction,” the rabbis stated, adding they would rather go “to prison and not to the army.”

The rabbis who signed the letter are affiliated with the greater Shas movement, however, the Shas party is led by a council of senior rabbis who didn’t publicly support the letter and stated: “The rabbis’ letter against the conscription does not represent the movement’s official position. The official Council of Torah Sages does not support it.”

“According to the order of the signatures, it can be understood that this is a private initiative of people with good intentions who went out and got rabbis to sign, but the official Shas does not stand behind the letter and the way it was written,” the Shas party council rabbis added.

The drastic statements came despite efforts by several Shas ministers, who are generally seen to be more lenient on the issue of army recruitment than their Ashkenazi colleagues from the United Torah Judaism Party.

In February, Shas minister for Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services, Yaacov Mergi, presented an outline for a compromise solution that would allow Torah students to continue their studies while drafting those who aren’t studying.

Shas Interior Minister Moshe Arbel in February also spoke about the issue to Major Yossi Levy, the commander of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion.

“I was very happy to hear from him in our conversation today about a significant increase in interest in enlisting for combat service among young people from the ultra-orthodox sector for the upcoming enlistment date, which is expected to be significantly greater than last year's date,” Arbel wrote at the time.

Many of Shas’ voters aren’t fully ultra-Orthodox but rather traditionally observant while being a full part of Israeli society and enlisting in the army.

After the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, reports surfaced of a growing interest among ultra-Orthodox men in joining the IDF, highlighted by the enlistment of the son of Shas leader Aryeh Deri into the IDF.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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