Gaza War Is Shifting Ties Between Secular and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis

In a neighborhood 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.

All of Israel was shaken by the Hamas-led raid in October, whose social and political consequences are expected to play out for years.

Some of the most striking consequences are occurring within the more outward-facing parts of Haredi society, according to polling data, Haredi experts and even some of their harshest secular critics.

Nearly 30 percent of the Haredi public now supports conscription, 20 points higher than before the war, according to a poll conducted in December by the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, a Jerusalem-based research group. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said their sense of shared destiny with other Israelis had intensified since the Oct. 7 attacks.

“We see some change within the Haredi community,” said Avigdor Liberman, the leader of a nationalist party that has long campaigned to end Haredi privileges. “They understand it is impossible to continue without participating more in our society.”

Incorporating more Haredim, a conservative population, into a modern military includes its own set of challenges, like addressing sensitivities involving men serving alongside women. Yet, more than 2,000 Haredim sought to join the military in the first 10 weeks of the war, a tiny proportion of the serving army but two times the group’s annual average. More Arab Israelis join the army than do the ultra-Orthodox.

Those few Haredim already in the military have reported feeling more feted in their communities, leading them to feel more confident walking through their neighborhoods in uniform.

“What we’ve experienced since Oct. 7 will come to be seen as one of the great triggers for change in the Haredi community over the next 30 years,” said Nechamia Steinberger, 40, a Haredi lecturer and rabbi in Jerusalem.

Mr. Steinberger’s own experiences since the attacks embody much of what is afoot. He is among what some experts call the modern Haredim — the estimated 10 percent of the ultra-Orthodox who seek to dovetail their devout lifestyle with the values of modern Israel.

For years, Mr. Steinberger has worked to find common ground between different parts of Israeli society. Unlike most Haredim, he completed a form of army service three years ago; after Oct. 7 he returned to the military as a reservist, helping to run a command center that assisted the air force.

It was on his return from nearly three months of duty in late December that he realized how much had changed.

As Mr. Steinberger walked in his uniform through Beit Vegan, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Jerusalem, groups of Haredi children ran after him, showering him with gratitude, he said.

“That was something new,” he said. “I felt like a hero.”

In his absence, worshipers at a nearby ultra-Orthodox synagogue had dedicated a Torah to a soldier killed during the invasion of Gaza — something that would have been unthinkable before the war.

On a personal level, Mr. Steinberger also felt changed by the war. Twelve weeks of service alongside secular reservists had been a kind of intellectual boot camp. Night after night, he and his fellow soldiers discussed politics and religion, exposing one another to alternative perspectives.

Mr. Steinberger said he emerged more sympathetic to heterodox forms of Judaism and more accepting of the secular campaign to legalize civil marriage.

Chana Irom, a Haredi community organizer, experienced a similar transition after Oct. 7.

For much of her career, Ms. Irom, 44, helped run dormitories for Haredi girls who had left home because of problems with their families. The thought of helping secular Israelis never crossed her mind.

Then came the Hamas attacks.

Jolted by the violence against secular communities along the Gaza border, and moved by the thousands of reservists responding to military call-ups, Ms. Irom pondered how to reach across the social divide.

Within three days, Ms. Irom said, she had helped set up a network of roughly 1,000 Haredi women to assist the families of reservists who had gone to fight, and Israelis evacuated from their homes. Some volunteers helped with babysitting, others with shopping and other household chores.

“I don’t think that before the war I could have convinced anyone, or even myself, to volunteer outside our community,” said Ms. Irom.

Most of Haredi society, however, has resisted such interactions.

In Bnei Brak, a city east of Tel Aviv that is considered Israel’s ultra-Orthodox capital, there are few posters of the Israeli hostages who were captured on Oct. 7 and whose photographs are ubiquitous in secular neighborhoods.

Rabbinical leaders in the city remain unmoved by calls for Haredim to serve in the military. Within Haredi communities, many fear that the fabric of their insular life would begin to fray if men were forced to skip the full-time study of Scripture.

“The way to help is to study Torah,” Meir Zvi Bergman, one of the most revered rabbis in Israel, said during a rare audience with journalists from The New York Times. “No one can give up on the Torah,” he added.

To show how Rabbi Bergman reflected mainstream Haredi opinion, a Haredi commentator took us to meet boys from a nearby school.

“How are we going to win the war?” the commentator, Bezalel Stauber, asked. “With guns?”

“Not with guns,” one boy replied.

“With what, then?” Mr. Stauber asked.

“Just with prayer,” another boy shot back.

“So where are we going to get our soldiers from?” Mr. Stauber said.

“If all the soldiers studied Torah, we wouldn’t need an army,” the boy replied.

But Haredi society is not monolithic, and some leaders have hinted at a change in mind-set.

Yitzhak Goldknopf is a Haredi government minister and the leader of Israel’s second-largest Haredi political alliance. In his government office, Mr. Goldknopf sat surrounded by images of the hostages, many of whom are young women. It was a striking juxtaposition in a society where pictures of women, even in advertisements, are often omitted for fear of upsetting ultraconservative sensibilities.

Mr. Goldknopf broke the rules of the Jewish Sabbath for the first time on Oct. 7, he said, when he was summoned from synagogue for an urgent cabinet meeting. It was also the first time he had been to Israel’s military headquarters. As the officials viewed early images of the carnage, Mr. Goldknopf recalled, a fellow cabinet minister broke down in tears.

“It changed me a great deal,” Mr. Goldknopf said, explaining that it hardened his attitude toward Palestinians. “I thought the world was falling apart,” he added.

Now, Mr. Goldknopf is prepared to concede that some Haredim can join the army — the ones who aren’t likely to make it as Torah scholars.

“Those who won’t study should go,” he said.

“The world stands on three things: Torah, prayer and charity,” he said. But, he added, “The reality is that those who don’t study can go to the army.”

Then he paused the interview to proudly show off a photo of a soldier on his phone.

It was a picture of his nephew.

Adam Sella contributed reporting.

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