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Bridging the Gap

The “battles” in Elad, Beit Shemesh, Ashdod, and Bnei Brak make for a surreal contrast with the real battle taking place in the Gaza Strip


Four senior chareidi politicians, three incumbent and one former, gathered for an emergency meeting last Wednesday on a balcony with a breathtaking view of the hills in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.

Hosting the gathering was Shas chair and war cabinet member Aryeh Deri, alongside former minister and former Shas co-chair Ariel Attias. The guests were MK Moshe Gafni, chair of Degel HaTorah and the Knesset Finance Committee and Israel’s longest-serving Knesset member; and deputy minister Uri Maklev, Gafni’s number two.

While in Shas, the concept of a “number two” doesn’t exist — there’s Aryeh Deri, and everyone else — Attias is the closest thing the party has to that, despite the fact that he hasn’t held any official role in years.

But back to the emergency meeting: It took place against the backdrop of a bitter battle — and not the one you’re thinking of, the one in Gaza. Over the past few months, Degel HaTorah and Shas have found themselves locked in a fierce struggle for control over the chareidi cities of Beit Shemesh and Elad, among others, ahead of Tuesday’s local elections.

The rancorous conflict, which Shas alleges was sparked by Degel HaTorah’s violation of an agreement, has split the third chareidi faction, Agudas Yisrael, as well: Shlomei Emunim, led by Minister Meir Porush, as well as the Belz chassidic court, have sided with Degel HaTorah, while two of Israel’s largest chassidic courts, Vizhnitz and Gur, formed an alliance with Shas.

The secret meeting between the four rivals took place less than a week before the local elections, which testifies to its importance.

“Despite our separate run in the local elections, we didn’t exchange a single word about the campaign,” Deri told me, confirming that the meeting took place, but apparently more eager to discuss what the meeting wasn’t about.



The “battles” in Elad, Beit Shemesh, Ashdod, and Bnei Brak make for a surreal contrast with the real battle taking place in the Gaza Strip, the news from which starts almost every day with the chilling phrase “The IDF has approved the announcement…” presaging the release of the names of soldiers killed in battle.

In fact, it is that real war that is driving an issue so large that it eclipses minor difference over municipal elections. The issue of draft deferrals for yeshivah students has accompanied Israel since its inception, and the fate of several governments has hinged on it over the past few decades.

When Netanyahu and his chareidi allies returned to power in December 2022, it seemed the matter could finally be put to rest. With the 2015 bill regulating draft exemptions for yeshivah students having been invalidated by the High Court, the chareidim conditioned their entrance into the current government on a legislative solution to the issue.

The intentions were genuine, but then came some major unplanned digressions. First, the judicial reform that poisoned the public atmosphere and made it impossible to advance the legislation. Last summer, the deadline set by the High Court for replacing the previous law expired, and yeshivah students have effectively been without special legal status, subject de jure to the draft like all Israelis their age.

Chareidi Knesset members promised to resolve the issue legislatively immediately after the chagim, but then came the horrific massacre of Simchas Torah. The concept of a “small and smart army,” which the defense establishment nurtured for decades, gave way to a multi-front war in which the IDF needs every soldier.

The manpower shortage led the IDF to request the government to extend the length of regular service as well as eligibility for reserve service. Here, too, with negligence bordering on obtuseness, the person sent by the government to present the bill in the plenum was none other than chareidi minister Meir Porush.

With each casualty in Gaza, public discontent with draft exemptions for Torah learners grows ever more acute. The emergency meeting was intended to exchange counsel and find a way out of the tunnel.



It’s easy to understand what Aryeh Deri, Moshe Gafni, and Uri Maklev — all three serving politicians — were doing at the emergency meeting. Ariel Attias, on the other hand, is now in private business. But it was Attias, the outsider, who explained the magnitude of the crisis to the others. Attias has been on the case ever since his days as a minister, representing the chareidi community in talks with the defense establishment after the High Court struck down the 2015 bill.

Attias explained to those present that all the proposals the chareidim rejected in the past in hopes of a better deal are now moot. The IDF’s current proposal wouldn’t set quotas for recruitment to the army, but rather for enrollment to yeshivos… and a gap that significant won’t be easy to bridge.

The dramatic change in the army’s perception was reflected in a recent statement by IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi on the need to draft chareidim. Even Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich, who always trod carefully on the matter, changed his tune and declared that the current situation can’t continue. Smotrich did so against the backdrop of rising discontent among the national-religious public, whose percentage of war casualties far exceeds its share of the general public.

There’s no need to explain the importance and value of preserving the status of Torah learners to chareidi readers. But it’s harder to explain that to a mother who sends her son to Gaza and is fed by a hostile media. Especially in light of the fact that even within the right-wing bloc, some voices are now demanding a new approach.

Pouring fuel into the fire was Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who wrote an opinion clarifying that if a new bill isn’t passed by the end of March, funding for yeshivos and kollels will be stopped at the end of next month, and their students will become subject to the draft.

It was this campaign to preserve the status of and funding for Torah learners that led to an emergency meeting between the two sides of the polarized chareidi community. They can't afford to let the matter drop until a creative solution is found to one of the worst crises the community has ever faced.

Like Israel’s state of emergency, l’havdil elef havdalos, this too is a multi-front conflict: against the defense establishment, which has hardened its demands; against the High Court, which faces a petition to draft yeshivah students; against the attorney general; against Finance Ministry officials who want to stop the funding for Torah institutions; against public opinion; and even against the community’s “natural allies,” Likud and Religious Zionist MKs who won’t automatically vote in favor.

“The day after the elections, we’ll know how to sit down together and set the grievances aside,” Shas chair Deri tells Mishpacha, and much the same is heard from Degel HaTorah chairman Moshe Gafni.

Rising above the internal divisions won’t be easy, but finding a creative solution to the draft issue will be much harder.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1001)

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