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The Orthodox Exemption Could Break Netanyahu’s Coalition

The Orthodox Exemption Could Break Netanyahu’s Coalition
The Orthodox Exemption Could Break Netanyahu’s Coalition


The most controversial Israeli comedy sketch of the current war is just 88 seconds long. Aired in February on Eretz Nehederet, Israel’s equivalent of Saturday Night Live, it opens with two ashen-faced officers knocking on the door of a nondescript apartment, ready to deliver devastating news to the inhabitants. The officers are greeted by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who is similarly stricken when he sees them.

“I’ve been terrified of this knock,” he says. “Ever since the war began, I knew it would eventually come for me.” But before the pained officers can continue, he interjects: “Listen, there is no situation in which I will enlist—forget about it.”

It turns out that the officers have the wrong address. This is not the home of a fallen soldier, but of one of the many thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not serve in Israel’s army, thanks to a special exemption. As the officers depart to find the right family, the man calls after them, “Tell them that we prayed for him! We did everything we could.”

The gag struck a nerve. Channel 14, Israel’s pro-Netanyahu equivalent of Fox News, ran multiple segments denouncing the satire. Commentators for right-wing media outlets called it “incitement,” a term typically applied to pro-terrorist speech in Israeli discourse. Why did a short sketch warrant such an overwhelming response? Because it took aim at the most vulnerable pressure point of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition—one with the potential to cause the current government’s collapse.


Since Israel was founded in 1948, it has fielded a citizens’ army with mandatory Jewish conscription—and one very notable exception: Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, yeshiva students do not serve. This dispensation dates back to David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister. A secular Jewish socialist, he saw Israel’s ultra-Orthodox as the dying remnant of an old world, and when the community’s leadership requested an exemption from the draft, Ben-Gurion calculated that it was a small price to pay for their support. At the time, the ultra-Orthodox constituted about 1 percent of Israel’s population, and the exemption applied to just 400 young men in religious seminaries.

That was then. Today the Haredi community numbers some 1.2 million, more than 13 percent of Israel’s total population. And because this community has the highest birth rate in the country, its ranks will only swell. In other words, the fastest-growing group in Israeli society does not serve in its armed forces. Since October 7, the divide has been thrown into stark relief. After Hamas massacred 1,200 Israelis and kidnapped hundreds more, the country initiated one of the largest mobilizations in its history. Children and spouses departed their families for the front, leaving fear and uncertainty in their absence. Nearly 250 soldiers have since been killed, and thousands more injured. Many Israelis spend their evenings at home fretting about that ominous knock on the door.

Meanwhile, Haredi life has largely continued as usual, untouched by the war and its toll. Yeshiva students have even been photographed enjoying ski vacations abroad while their same-age peers are on the battlefield. Some ultra-Orthodox individuals do voluntarily serve in the army, and others act as first responders, but their numbers are small enough to be a rounding error. In February, a record-high 66,000 military-age Haredi men received exemptions; just 540 had enlisted since the war began. Put another way, more Arab Israelis serve in the Israel Defense Forces than ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The Haredi carve-out has long rankled Israel’s secular citizens. Yair Lapid, the center-left opposition leader and past prime minister, rose to prominence in 2012 on a campaign that promised “equality of the burden.” Before him, the right-wing politician Avigdor Lieberman built his secular Russian constituency on a similar pledge. But what has changed since October 7 is that this discontent is no longer emanating solely from the usual suspects, such as the left-wing Eretz Nehederet, but from supporters of the current governing coalition, including the more modern religious right.

Unlike the ultra-Orthodox, Israel’s religious Zionist community is fully integrated into the country’s army and economy. Sympathetic to Haredi piety, it has typically sat out the debates over conscription—but no longer. In early January, a religious Zionist educator from Jerusalem published an “Open Letter to Our Haredi Sisters.” In it, she implored ultra-Orthodox mothers to encourage their sons to enlist in the IDF. “This reality is no longer tolerable,” she wrote. “For those who think that their son is not suited for military service, we say: Many of our children are not suited to be soldiers. None of them are suited to die in war. None of us are suited to sending a child to risk his life. We all do this because it is impossible to live here without an army … and we are all responsible for one another: it cannot be that others will take risks and risk their children for me, and I and my children will not take risks for them.” The letter now has nearly 1,000 signatures.

The grassroots pressure on this issue from the non-Haredi religious community has risen to the point that Bezalel Smotrich, the ultra-nationalist politician and finance minister who has courted Haredi votes, joined the anti-exemption campaign, at least rhetorically. “The current situation is outrageous and cannot continue,” he said last month. “Israeli society’s claim against the [Haredi] community is just.” But this demand may be one that Netanyahu cannot satisfy.


Much has been written about Netanyahu’s dependence on the Israeli far right to remain in power. But the backbone of his coalition for many years has actually been the ultra-Orthodox political parties. They stuck with the premier after he was indicted on corruption charges, and they refused to defect to the opposition even after Netanyahu failed to form a government following successive stalemate elections. Today, the far right provides 14 of Netanyahu’s 64 coalition seats; the Haredi parties provide 18. The Israeli leader has richly rewarded this loyalty by ensuring an ever-growing flow of public subsidies to ultra-Orthodox voters and their religious institutions. Because Haredi men can maintain their military exemption only by remaining in seminaries until age 26, they rarely enter the workforce until late in life and lack the secular education to succeed in it. As a result, nearly half of the ultra-Orthodox community lives in poverty and relies on government welfare—an unsustainable economic course that is another perennial source of Israeli angst.

The Israeli public—and especially the Israeli right—was previously willing to look the other way on Haredi enlistment to advance other political priorities. But now, in a time of perceived existential conflict, Haredi enlistment has become a prime concern. Israel faces war with Iranian proxies—Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north—and it needs more soldiers, not more people who can’t be drafted. To cope, the country has extended reserve duty for current enlistees, further underscoring the disparity between their experience and that of the ultra-Orthodox. A long-standing fault line in Israeli society has now produced an earthquake.

Recent polls show that Israeli Jews—including majorities on the political right and center right—now overwhelmingly oppose blanket Haredi exemptions. A February survey found that an astonishing 73 percent were against exemptions—up 11 points from November. A poll released this week similarly found that 73 percent of Israeli Jews, including a majority of people who voted for the Netanyahu government, oppose the billion-shekel subsidies to Haredi institutions that are included in the government’s current budget proposal.

Unfortunately for Netanyahu, he’s running out of time to solve this problem, and his usual stalling tactics may not suffice. That’s because not just the Israeli public but the Israeli Supreme Court has put the issue on the agenda. Back in 1998, the high court ruled that the ultra-Orthodox exemption violated the principle of equality under the law, and ordered the Parliament to legislate a fairer arrangement to replace the existing regime. Since then, successive Israeli governments have tried and failed to craft such a solution, constantly kicking the can down the road. Months before the war, the current government set a March 31 deadline for passing its own legislation to resolve the Haredi-draft issue. This was widely expected to be yet another exercise in equivocation, leaving most of the ultra-Orthodox exempt so as to keep the coalition together, and likely setting up another showdown with the Supreme Court. In other words, more of the same.

But more of the same is no longer enough after October 7. With the public incensed at what many see as Haredi privilege, Netanyahu is facing revolt within his ranks. Most notably, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has publicly called for an end to the exemptions and said he will not support any legislation on the matter that is not also approved by Benny Gantz, a centrist opposition lawmaker and rival to Netanyahu who sits in the country’s war cabinet. But any Haredi-draft bill that satisfies Gantz and Gallant is unlikely to satisfy the Haredi parties, who perceive enlistment as a threat to their cloistered way of life. And if no new legislation is passed, the IDF will be required to begin drafting the ultra-Orthodox on April 1.

As this deadline approaches, tensions have exploded into the open. This past week, Yitzhak Yosef, the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, declared that “if you force us to go to the army, we’ll all move abroad.” The ultimatum drew widespread condemnation, even from within the hard-right government. “Drafting to the military: A good deed!” retorted Smotrich’s party. “Army service is a huge privilege for a Jew who defends himself in his country and a great deed,” added the far-right faction of National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir. It’s not clear that these worldviews can be reconciled, and the failure to bridge them could bring down the government.

Polls show that the overwhelming majority of Israelis want Netanyahu to resign, either now or after the war; that most Israelis want early elections; and that the current hard-right coalition would be crushed if those elections were held tomorrow. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, surely aware of those surveys, called yesterday for Israel to go to the polls to choose new leadership. The problem for the Israeli public is that no external mechanism forces Netanyahu to hold new elections, and the terrible polls for his coalition give its members every incentive to swallow their differences and keep the government afloat rather than face voters. Haredi conscription is perhaps the one issue that could shatter this cynical compact.

It’s never wise to bet against Netanyahu, Israel’s ultimate survivor. He will pursue every possible avenue to paper over this problem. But if he fails, his ultra-Orthodox allies could be compelled to leave the coalition, breaking it from within to force elections and freeze the status quo until a new government is sworn in. And if that happens, Israel’s other civil war may claim its first casualty: Netanyahu’s political career.

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