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Gaza War Is Shifting Ties Between Secular and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis – The New York Times – 04.03.24

Israel’s Haredi minority has long lived apart from the nation’s mainstream, but fighting has both widened that divide and in some ways helped to bridge it. By Patrick Kingsley and Natan Odenheimer.

To understand changes within ultra-Orthodox society, the reporters spoke with ultra-Orthodox rabbis, analysts, activists and politicians in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, Israel.

In a neighbourhood of Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents cheered a soldier returning from military service. At a religious seminary, similarly devout students gathered to hear an officer talk about his military duties. And at a synagogue attended by some of the most observant Jews in the country, members devoted a Torah scroll in memory of a soldier slain in Gaza.

The Hamas-led attack on Israel last October has prompted flashes of greater solidarity between sections of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority and the secular mainstream, as fears of a shared threat have accelerated the integration of some of Israel’s most insular citizens.

As Israel’s war in Gaza drags on and Israeli reservists are called to serve elongated or additional tours of duty, long-simmering divisions about military exemptions for the country’s most religious Jews are again at the center of a national debate.

But now, in the wake of the deadliest day of attacks on Jews since the Holocaust, parts of Israel’s rapidly growing community of ultra-Orthodox Jews, known in Hebrew as Haredim, are reconsidering their role in the nation’s fabric. Unusually high numbers have expressed support for or interest in military service, according to polling data and military statistics, even as the vast majority of Haredim still hope to retain their exemption.

Since Israel’s founding 76 years ago, Haredim have had a fraught relationship with their secular neighbors, in part because of the benefits the small ultra-Orthodox community was guaranteed around that time in an agreement between religious and secular leaders.

Unlike most Israelis, for whom military service is mandatory, Haredim are exempt from conscription to focus on religious study. They also receive substantial state subsidies to maintain an independent education system that eschews math and science for the study of Scripture.

As the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews has exploded — to more than one million people today, roughly 13 percent of Israel’s population, from about 40,000 in 1948 — those privileges and exemptions have led to resentment from secular Israelis. Many Israelis feel that their own military service and taxes provide both physical protection and financial reward to an underemployed community that gives little in return. Secular efforts to draw the ultra-Orthodox into the army and the work force have angered many Haredim, who see army service as a threat to their lives of religious devotion.

The army may ultimately come for some Haredim whether they like it or not. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a looming deadline to either extend their exemption or begin to include them in the draft.

The decision, which pits some Haredi lawmakers against secular officials like Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who wants to increase Haredi involvement in the military, threatens to bring down the governing coalition.

“The security challenges facing us prove that everyone must bear the burden, every sector of the population,” Mr. Gallant said in a speech on Wednesday.

Polling shows that the Israeli mainstream is keener than ever to force Haredim to enlist, particularly with a growing number of soldiers returning from battle in Gaza and questioning the absence of ultra-Orthodox on the front lines.

But beyond that standoff, some social divides are being bridged rather than widened.

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Gaza War Is Shifting Ties Between Secular and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis – The New York Times
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Adam Sella contributed reporting.

Patrick Kingsley is the Jerusalem bureau chief, covering Israel and the occupied territories. He has reported from more than 40 countries, written two books and previously covered migration and the Middle East for The Guardian.

Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman meeting in January with military officials at the Shura base in central Israel. The Hamas-led attacks last fall have changed some ultra-Orthodox Jews’ views toward the military. Credit...Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

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