‘We are soldiers of the Torah’: Israel’s ultra-Orthodox capital ignores order to serve in the army

The city of Bnei Brak is home to the largest Haredi community in the country, but on its streets, not a single soldier is to be seen

Bnei Brak
Haredi students at the entrance to Slabodka Yeshiva this Wednesday in Bnei Brak.Luis de Vega
Luis de Vega

The residents of Bnei Brak, a city considered the capital of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, have no plans to don the military uniform despite the war that is rocking their country. They will continue wearing their black pants, white long-sleeved shirts, white fringes (tzitzit) hanging from the waist, kippah, and, despite the heat that prevails these days, their long black coats and hats.

“We are soldiers of the Torah,” says Daniel, 63, while he helps a young man who has walked into his store, which sells traditional Jewish clothing and religious objects. The Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday ending the exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews (13% out of a total Israeli population of 10 million) from serving in the army does not seem to bother the people of Bnei Brak in the least. The city is home to around 185,000 residents, of whom the vast majority are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox).

In front of the display window of Daniel’s establishment, on the central Rabbi Akiva Street, pedestrians walk by in clothing that leaves no room for doubt. The business owner points at them: “Walk anywhere and you will see them. I think it would be an understatement if I told you that 85% of us here are ultra-Orthodox. The majority of those who are not religious are from some other place.”

Not far from that spot, at mid-morning on Wednesday, hundreds of men of very different ages rocked back and forth while reading religious texts in one of the classrooms of Slabodka Yeshiva, one of the schools for the study of the Torah that dot the streets of Bnei Brak. “I don’t feel any special obligation,” says Yehiel Nadel, a 20-year-old student who is doubtful that being a soldier and being a Haredi can be compatible. This young man does not feel personally affected by the call made by Defense authorities, who are trying to attract young religious people to special units in which they would not live with women, would enjoy special food and have more time to pray. “It is necessary for them to understand our culture and its origin,” he says.

“Spiritual battle”

“Of course we have to have an army, but we also have to address the spiritual root of things. And my role is on the spiritual level, that which has protected the Jewish people for thousands of years, when we did not have an army,” says Nadel. “We feel that our role lies in the spiritual battle.”

“We do not feel represented by that court, which has deepened the rift in Israeli society,” says Phineas Cohen, 28, another student at Slabodka Yeshiva. “What would happen if the Supreme Court in Spain forced Catholics to be Protestants? It would be seen as an attack on religious feelings,” he says, alluding to the reporter’s nationality.

Students at Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, on Wednesday.
Students at Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, on Wednesday.Luis de Vega

So far, about 1,800 ultra-Orthodox Jews have been joining the ranks voluntarily per year, but the war in Gaza, whose end is not in sight anytime soon, is a heavy burden for the army, which has called up more than 300,000 reservists since October. After the Supreme Court’s ruling, Israel hopes that some 3,000 more can be added to that quota of 1,800 ultra-Orthodox soldiers next year, although no one can really picture the authorities dragging Haredim into combat.

“There will be many demonstrations, strikes and transfers to prison if the army tries to recruit the ultra-Orthodox by force,” says Shilo Freid, a journalist for the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, who does not think it should be complicated to achieve the goal of 3,000 more soldiers in the coming months. Nor does he see the likelihood of ultra-Orthodox parties that support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ending their support for the government coalition. The Supreme Court ruling does not open the door to recruiting a decisive number of people, but it is being viewed as a way of ending a privilege enjoyed by those who have been dedicating themselves to the sacred scriptures since Israel was born as a State 76 years ago.

Avi Kosman, a rabbi who arrived in Israel four decades ago from the United States, does not want to talk about politics, but he does describe two worlds that openly collide, the one that studies the Torah and the Bible, and the secular one. He doesn’t like to prophesy, but it is clear to him that “yeshiva students are not going to go to the army,” he says during a conversation surrounded by students in one of the classrooms. When he is reminded of how unpopular it is with many soldiers and their families that Haredi Jews do not serve in the army, Kosman acknowledges that “this is a good approach” and that “they are 100% right.” In any case, he affirms that he is not going to change his mind and also believes that the plan to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the Armed Forces is “not realistic.”

Bnei Brak, located in the Tel Aviv metropolitan belt, has the highest population density in Israel, with more than 26,000 inhabitants per square kilometer (compared to the national average of 387). At the same time, it suffers from a high poverty rate and the highest unemployment rate (6.2% compared to the 4.1% national average). Spirituality and the fact that an important number of the most influential rabbis have been trained in the city’s schools works to attract people to this place, explains Daniel, the business owner. “There are those who need a physical battlefront. Others like us need the spiritual battlefront,” he explains.

A street in Bnei Brak, this Wednesday.
A street in Bnei Brak, this Wednesday.Luis de Vega

Moshe Marciano, 48, arrived in Bnei Brak from Casablanca (Morocco) as a teenager. He holds that it is the sacred scriptures that attract so many people to Israel. “Look,” says this student of Slobodka Yeshiva student while pointing his finger at various other students: “This one is from Germany; that one from Yemen; that one from the United States; I’m from Morocco…” Next to him, Nahum Meir, 65, knows that he is not going to be called up due to his age, but he sadly describes his take on things: “The court has cut off the branch from which Israel was born, the Torah.” Around here, every conversation leads back to that book.

There is another element that helps to understand the unique environment in Bnei Brak despite the war that has shaken the country since October 7. For several hours, this EL PAÍS reporter did not come across a single soldier, something almost impossible in any other city in Israel. In Bnei Brak, the “soldiers of the Torah” impose their own law.

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