Hamas attacks pushing ultra-Orthodox Jews closer to mainstream Israeli society?

A growing number of Haredi men are volunteering for the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) following the outbreak of the war against Hamas, which might signal that the “modern Haredi” phenomenon is developing into a real movement, writes Eliyahu Berkovits of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program on the website of the Israel Democracy Institute (October 26). While young religious men studying in yeshivas have been exempt from military conscription since the State of Israel’s foundation, 2,000 Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men have now inquired about volunteering for the IDF. This trend worries Haredi leaders and goes against the view of one rabbi that yeshiva students should remain in study—although Berkovits is keen on pointing to precedents that have occurred since the birth of the modern State of Israel in which ultra-Orthodox rabbis consented to exceptions in emergency situations. In recent years, only about 1,200 ultra-Orthodox men per year had enlisted in the Israeli army. “The Israeli army has facilitated this process by establishing military units that are designed to cater to the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, including gender separation, strict kosher food and separate prayer services,” All Israel News reports (October 22).

Earlier this year, following terror attacks, one could already notice an increase in ultra-Orthodox men carrying guns or applying for licenses, with some rabbis encouraging them to carry those guns with them even on Shabbat and holidays, and especially when going to the synagogue, since places of worship were at risk of becoming targets. But other rabbis have claimed that a man who learns full-time in yeshiva “does not carry a weapon” because doing so could have a negative effect on his faith (Haaretz, February 21).

Source: Israel Democracy Institute.

“Many members of the ultra-Orthodox community do not serve in the armed forces because of a belief that their Torah study serves to protect them, an attitude which may extend to gun ownership more generally, explained Dr. Gilad Malach, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.” Since the beginning of the war with Hamas, 41,000 applications for gun ownership have already been submitted and there are plans to ease regulations on the granting of licenses, according to Le Figaro (October 26). Ultra-Orthodox Jews made up 13.5 percent of Israel’s population in 2022. Even at this point, only a small minority among them consider joining the IDF, but a number of them find other ways of “joining forces instead with the massive and spontaneous solidarity movement that united an Israeli Jewish society divided by ten months of contestation around justice reform” (La Croix International, October 24). According to Tel Aviv University Professor Nechumi Yaffe, head of the Tatia Haredi think tank, “23 percent of Haredim could be classified as modern Haredim,” and an additional 27 percent of the staunchly ultra-Orthodox Israelis “have been seeking ways to assimilate further into the Israeli identity” (Jerusalem Post, October 21). “The impression gained from looking at Haredi society today is that the pendulum is now swinging back toward greater integration, at least for parts of Haredi society. These segments are participating more and more in the labor market and in higher education, and even identify as ‘Israeli Haredim,’” Berkovits concludes, while conceding that it is too early to say if this modern Haredi phenomenon will be able to transform into a real movement at last.

(The Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, https://en.idi.org.il/centers/1157/1517)