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WATCH: What is Israel's internal debate regarding ultra-Orthodox Jewish enlistment in the IDF?

The following "ALL ISRAEL Debates" video explores how the recent war has exposed a deep-seated issue: The reluctance of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish community to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

Join the discussion by watching the video above or reading the transcript.

Hi, my name is Kayla Sprague. Welcome to "ALL ISRAEL Debates," where we try to clue you in on an internal dialogue within Israeli society. Today, we discuss conscription and the ultra-Orthodox society in Israel. 

In Israel, the issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription into the military has been a long-standing point of contention.

The majority of the ultra-Orthodox community believes they are already serving the country through their prayers and religious studies.

Rabbinical leaders worry that if their devout followers serve in the army, they may be exposed to an unorthodox lifestyle, that may include working on Shabbat and serving alongside women that aren't dressed modestly… something that is very problematic for the way they live their life. 

On the other hand, many in the secular and Zionist sectors argue that it's unfair for the ultra-Orthodox to be exempted from military service, especially in light of the recent war and ongoing threats Israel faces. This is a very strong sentiment in Israeli society, as many ask: ‘Why are we sending our kids to fight while others do not?’

The debate goes beyond just military service; it's about the ultra-Orthodox community's integration into the broader Israeli society and sharing the economic burdens, as too many in the ultra-orthodox also do not work, and depend on government subsidies and charity funds. 

As right-wing journalist Akiva Bigman stated:

"The issue of conscription is a painful wound, consisting of two parts: a) Participation in the military burden, and b) Full integration into economic life and bearing the burden of taxes. These are key issues for the future of relations within Israeli society, and they become urgent and very painful in the current situation, after these two burdens – military and economic – have become an existential challenge on a national level."

Against this backdrop, the Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef made a controversial statement during his weekly Sabbath sermon:

"The tribe of Levi is exempt from the army. They will not take them under any circumstances. Whatever happens."

The rabbi is referring to his ultra-Orthodox flock as ‘The tribe of Levi’, asserting that in the same way, the biblical Levi tribe was not required to participate in combat, only to attend to their priestly duties, so are the ultra-Orthodox of the modern State of Israel must be exempt from combat.

The Rabbi then added: ‘All these secular people who do not understand this, they need to understand that without the Torah, without the yeshivas, without the religious studies – there would be no existence, the army would not have succeeded."

Avigdor Liberman, a former minister of defense and a fierce critic of the ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service, responded:

"Regarding the chief rabbi's words, I can only say that it is in complete contradiction to Jewish law and our sources; all the great ones of Israel were warriors. I do not understand the approach of the ultra-Orthodox activists, all they care about is power, honor, and money. For the chief rabbi to say, in the midst of a war, that they will leave the country if they are conscripted is an irresponsible and clearly unreasonable statement."

Ultimately, finding a resolution will require open dialogue, understanding, and a willingness to compromise from all sides, to preserve the unity and strength of Israeli society in the face of shared challenges.

However, this issue is also heavily influenced by the political divide, as Netanyahu's right-wing government relies on the support of two major ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Without their votes, Netanyahu would not have a coalition government.

The ultra-Orthodox conscription debate touches on deeper issues of national identity, security, and the role of religion in the state, making it a highly complex and sensitive matter for Israeli society.

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

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