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Who are the Haredim in Israel and what are their demands? | Religion News

Who are the Haredim in Israel and what are their demands? | Religion News

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The military’s moves to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews has led to protests and anger among the religious community.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been protesting in Israel, unhappy with the idea of being drafted into the army.

In recent days, groups of Haredi men have clashed with police during protests against the removal of their exemption from compulsory military service, and anger has even turned towards their own representatives in the Israeli parliament. On Sunday, a group attacked the head of the United Torah Judaism party’s car.

In a country with compulsory military service, why are the ultra-Orthodox exempt, and why are they so angry at attempts to change that?

Who are the ultra-Orthodox Jews? And the Haredim?

The Haredim (Haredi in the singular) is the Hebrew term for ultra-Orthodox Jews. They are the most strictly observant sect of Judaism, segregating themselves from society to devote themselves to prayer and worship.

They have a distinctive dress, with women wearing long, modest garments and head coverings and men in black suits or overcoats and large fur hats.

They also have a distinctive way of life, keeping themselves and their communities as isolated from the outside world as possible, bar necessary economic interactions to remain “pure” and unsullied by worldly pursuits.

The movement has been traced back to 19th-century Europe as a reaction to a modernising world, which the early Haredim feared would distract Jews from their religious learning.

Why were Haredim not carrying out military duty?

A special exemption arrangement, the torato umanuto (which means “Torah study is his job”), was agreed upon before the state of Israel was formed.

That exception was for a small number of senior students to be exempted from serving in the army as long as all they did was study the Jewish holy books in religious schools known as yeshivas – which are reliant on government funding.

This was in the belief that Torah study, or reciting it, protected the Israeli people from threats. And as the ultra-Orthodox were a relatively small group within Israel, the problem was not seen as a big one.

However, over time, the number of Haredim within Israel has skyrocketed. Now, about 13,000 ultra-Orthodox young men reach the conscription age of 18, but about 90 percent of them do not enlist. Last year, 66,000 Haredim did not enlist.

What happened next? Why are people unhappy?

As more Israeli soldiers were killed and injured while fighting in Gaza, their families got angry that there were so many able-bodied young men who were sitting the war out.

But that was not the only trigger. For years, Israeli governments – particularly the ones led by secular parties – have been discussing ending the blanket exemption as the ultra-Orthodox communities grow in size. Then the Supreme Court ruled on June 25 that the military begin drafting yeshiva students.

It had previously ruled that yeshivas whose students do not sign up will not receive government funding.

This raised the ire of Haredi communities, who have lobbied and protested vehemently against the idea of doing military service.

But other Israeli Jews are getting angry at the Haredim, noting that they live off state benefits subsidised by other Israelis. This has led to some attacks against Haredi protesters.

But why are the Haredim so opposed to military service?

There are various reasons why they do not want to participate in the military.

Primarily, they believe that joining the army will by necessity distract them from studying the Torah, which they say is their ultimate purpose in life.

Enlisting will also remove elements of the isolation ultra-Orthodox communities have from wider society, and many believe that Haredi principles contradict those of the army.

Special accommodations would also need to be made, such as serving in male-only units, making sure they do not come into contact with women, allowing for prolonged prayer times, and strict housing conditions.

Many Haredim are also anti-Zionist, as they believe that the state of Israel can only be established after the arrival of the messiah. Some ultra-Orthodox sects have even become notable supporters of the Palestinian cause.

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