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Israel’s New Elections and the Ultra-Orthodox Draft

Orthodox Jewish soldiers salute. (Friends of Nahal Haredi YouTube capture)

“When you go to war against your enemies …”  (Deuteronomy 20:21)

Only two weeks ago, for the first time since Israel became a modern nation in 1948, its government voted to dissolve itself and hold new elections, which are set for September 17, 2019.

In April, Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party clearly received more votes than its closest rival, the Blue and White party.  He was poised to be Israel’s longest reigning prime minister.

So why are Israelis going to the polls again in a few months, and what does the right wing religious Jewish community have to do with this political shake-up?

The Israeli Knesset (Parliament) is comprised of 120 seats that are portioned out to various political parties based on how many votes each party receives during a national election.

In Israel, winning an election is not the end of the story.

The winning party leader (in this case Netanyahu) must form a coalition made up of other political parties.  The number of Knesset (Parliament) seats that each of these parties represent must add up to more than half of all seats available.

Out of 120 seats in the Knesset, Netanyahu’s Likud party alone held 35 seats.  He needed 61 seats in his coalition to officially form a government and move forward with his leadership as prime minister.

By the deadline of May 29, 2019, he was only one short of the required seats with a total of 60.

The core reason why Netanyahu did not form a coalition was the issue about exemption from military service of religious Jewish students attending Yeshiva (Jewish seminaries) — a service that is mandatory for most Israeli citizens.


Ultra-Orthodox Jews stroll on a street in Jerusalem.  This community represents 8% of the Jewish population in Israel today, about 500,000 people.  They follow the commandment in Genesis 1:28 where God says, “Be fruitful and multiply”:  religious Jews have an average of seven children per couple, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

Sharing the Burden and Privilege

Since Israel’s rebirth on May 14, 1948 — after the Holocaust when six million Jews perished — its military has served as a critical necessity to keep this tiny nation safe from its Arab neighbors and terrorist organizations who threaten to annihilate it.

To deal with this security challenge, conscription or “the draft” is mandatory.
 All Israeli citizens over the age of 18, male and female, except for non-Druze Arab citizens, must enlist.

Men are required to serve three years and women two years.

Although military service is compulsory, there are exceptions.  More than 25% of eligible enlistees receive exemptions based upon religious, physical, psychological, or other legal grounds.  Half of these are yeshiva (Jewish seminary) students.  (Haaretz)

For 71 years, yeshiva students have been exempt from military service based on an arrangement made with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, in 1948.

At that time, there were only 400 religious Jewish men studying in yeshivot (plural of yeshiva).  Today, out of the 30,000 religious men eligible to enlist, only about 3,000 do so.

By claiming that “Torah study is his job” a Yeshiva student can be legally exempted from service until he finishes his studies.  But nearly all students never enlist.

Jewish men study at Yeshivat Sanz (a Jewish seminary) in Netanya, Israel.

The Religious Men Who Serve

The approximate 3,000 religious Jews who voluntarily serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) do so primarily (about 2,300 of them) in the Netzah Yehuda Battalion.

Founded in 1999 with only 30 men, it is also known as Nahal Haredi.  Its purpose is to allow religious Israelis to serve in the IDF while maintaining their strict religious observance.

The battalion’s motto is V’haya Machanecha Kadosh (and your [military] camp shall be holy).  These words are part of a passage in Deuteronomy 23:14 that orders the Israelites to keep the camp free of all defilement and sin.

This division, therefore, follows rabbinic dietary laws, engages in traditions and customs, and women are not allowed on the base (other than the wives of the soldiers).

As the battalion’s Rabbi, Yitzhak Bar-Chaim, said to the soldiers,  “The fact that you’re giving yourselves for the Jewish People, for the Land of Israel with the holiness of God, this is a tremendous merit.”

And he told the soldiers they were literally fulfilling the opening words of Deuteronomy 20:1 and 21:10 that say:

When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.  When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army.  He shall say: “Hear, Israel:  Today you are going into battle against your enemies.  Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them.  For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.”  (Deuteronomy 20:1–4)

Within the ultra-religious community, Rabbi Bar-Chaim is certainly in the minority view on this matter.

The Netzah Yehuda Battalion dance with the Torah along with their Rabbi, Yitzhak Bar-Chaim.  (Friends of Nahal Haredi YouTube capture)

The Proposed Law for Religious Men Who Don’t Serve

The inability to form a coalition centers around a bill drafted in 2018 by Israel’s defense minister at the time, Avigdor Lieberman.  The proposed law would require every Yeshiva to meet a minimum quota of enlistees each year or face financial sanctions in the form of reduced federal funding.

Lieberman has refused to compromise on any piece of his bill.

This is a problem because Lieberman is the leader of the Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, which holds eight seats in the Knesset.  He will only give those seats to Netanyahu’s coalition if the prime minister ensures that his bill will pass into law without any changes.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, which also holds eight seats vehemently opposes any law to remove the exemption of religious Jews to serve in the military, and it will not give its seats to Netanyahu’s coalition if he supports such a law.


In one of the largest public demonstrations in Israel’s history, hundreds of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews rallied in Jerusalem and around the world such as the above march on New York’s Wall Street to protest a proposed Israeli draft reform law in 2014.

The rabbis who oversee the religious communities view their Yeshiva students as a kind of  “praying army”  that protects Israel on the spiritual front.

Even so, the fact is that for the most part, religious Israelis have not shared in the sacrifice required to serve in the military which has caused deep divisions between secular and religious Jews within Israeli society.

Former finance minister Yair Lapid explained:

“A state with self-respect understands that there is a connection between rights and obligations.  There can’t be one sector that is freed from the obligations.  I have nothing against them, but I want them to fulfill the same obligations as my son has.  They need to have a part in being Israeli, and this is not an outrageous demand.  They need to know that this is not an attack on the Torah world or Torah study.”

Emotions overflow on both sides of the argument with many religious Jews calling any conscription law a “spiritual Holocaust.”

Member of Knesset, Yisrael Eichler of the religious party United Torah Judaism has said,

“The government of heretics has no right to impose its evil culture on those of the Jewish religion,” Eichler said.  “There is one goal to their coercive laws:  to draw the youth of Israel to an evil culture.  They have the weapon of dictatorial rule and they do not hesitate to use it,”  he added.  (JPost)

Lieberman, who is a secular Jew, believes he is the only one who can prevent the rising religious political power base from imposing its halakha (Jewish law) on the nation.

So, he will not compromise, even though that means taking Israel into another election.

IDF soldiers of the religious Nahal battalion train for infantry service.

What Does God Say about Holy Warriors?

Is it Biblical for those devoted to studying Torah to refrain from defending their country through military service, especially when the country is constantly faced with serious and ongoing threats to its security?

As Bible Believers, we cannot base our understanding on public sentiment or emotionalism; we must examine the Word of God for the answer.

We can see in the Tanakh that participation in physical warfare has spiritual implications.

In the Book of Numbers, God orders a census of the Israelites in preparation for military service, He sets apart the Levites to serve the Lord in the Tent of Meeting.  (Numbers 1:47–49)

“Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the people of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine.” . . .  “For they are wholly given to Me from among the people of Israel.”  (Numbers 8:14–16)

Moses emphasized that all of the other Israelite men of appropriate age, except the Levites, were morally and ethically required to serve in the military.

He made this clear when he rebuked the tribes of Reuben and Gad for requesting to settle on the east side of the Jordan, thinking that their intention was to avoid fighting alongside their brethren.

“But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben,  ‘Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here?’”  (Numbers 32:6)

This same rhetorical question echoes in the hearts of so many Israelis today who are upset because religious Jews seek to use Yeshiva study as a means to avoid enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces.

Somewhat like Moses they are saying:  “Shall we send our sons and daughters to war while you sit here studying the Talmud in your Yeshiva?”

Soldiers in Safed, Israel prepare to go home for Shabbat.

Soldiers in Safed, Israel prepare to go home for Shabbat.

Fulfilling the Call to Become Light

Certainly, by enlisting in the military and being exposed to the wider Israeli culture, religious Jewish young men will encounter drugs, violence, and the immorality of secular society as the rabbis say they will.

Yet, God has appointed His people to be a nation of priests, a light in the midst of a crooked generation.  (Exodus 19:6)

Yeshua explained this same divine call:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:14–16)

Religious Israeli men have an opportunity to share the love of God and pray with their brethren in the field and not just in their yeshivot and synagogues.

Soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Battalion share their light during Hanukkah season with an Israeli senior community and Holocaust survivors. (Friends of Nahal Haredi YouTube capture)

Yeshiva and the Missing Messianic Prophecies

While religious young men do study Torah (the first five books of the Bible), we should keep in mind that they spend the majority of their time studying and discussing various points of the Talmud, which is a compilation of Judaism’s oral laws (the oral Torah), the Hebrew Scriptures and other topics, which are expounded upon by the Jewish sages.

As well, it is not a traditional practice in Orthodox Judaism to read the Tanakh (Old Testament) cover to cover.

Religious Jews, therefore, do not study the Messianic prophecies, although some Torah scholars are familiar with them.

As an example, the nephew of one of our ministry workers studied in a Yeshiva for several years.  During that time, he did not read from the book of Daniel even once.  He was entirely unfamiliar with the prophecy of Daniel’s 70 weeks in chapter 9:24–27, which speaks of a Messiah being cut off (dying) and the arrival of second Messiah.

Orthodox religious Jews need to learn about this and many other prophecies about their Messiah.

Israeli soldier and Jewish man wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) pray at the Western (Wailing) Wall in Jerusalem.

Please pray that God’s will be done with another upcoming election and that His man becomes the new Prime Minister of Israel.

Please also pray for a spiritual awakening among both the religious and secular Jewish people of Israel so that they will see Yeshua as their Messiah and Prince of Peace — the Sar Shalom who is the only One who can bring true peace to Israel and the nations.

“You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”  (Isaiah 40:9)

This article was updated June 17, 2019

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