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IDF chief urges youth to enlist, as students call to refuse service due to overhaul

The chief of the Israel Defense Forces responded on Wednesday to hundreds of teenagers who have announced they will not serve in the military in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul push and Israel’s decades-long military rule over the West Bank.

“For the youth who are considering not enlisting, there is a clear statement: We will always live here, in the State of Israel. Because of this we must defend [it],” IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said at a ceremony.

“Anyone who is considering not enlisting should ask themselves what would happen if everyone behaved like them,” Halevi continued. “In days of controversy, however difficult they may be, one must not lose their direction. The IDF is the right place to be.”

Some 200 12th graders and alumni unveiled a letter on Sunday at Tel Aviv’s famed Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium, that stated they would not serve in the IDF.

“We must stop the judicial overhaul and we must stop taking part in a military that serves settlements and the occupation,” 17-year-old Tal Mitnick, one of the organizers of the “youth against dictatorship” initiative, said in a video statement ahead of the event.

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The principal of the school, Zeev Degani, announced his resignation after the school board said that it had canceled the event. The unveiling of the letter took place anyway.

The letter’s invocation of the judicial overhaul came amid mass protests and warnings by thousands of reservists that they would stop showing up for volunteer duty, charging that the government’s plans to weaken the judiciary will turn Israel into an undemocratic country.

There have been numerous cases of small groups of 12th graders refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces to protest the country’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Israel allows military service exemptions for a number of reasons, including mental health and medical problems and religious objections, and for Arab Israelis, but rarely for conscientious objectors. Refusal to serve is one of the most divisive issues in Israel.

Halevi also said that Israel must continue the so-called “people’s army” model — one in which all Israelis are meant to serve in the military — amid plans by the government to lower the age at which ultra-Orthodox men can gain permanent exemptions from drafting to the army.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men walk alongside Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

“This is a model that requires drafting from as many parts of the Israeli population as possible. With the right adjustments, there is a place and a way to implement this in the developing Israeli society,” he said.

“Our position is clear, draft for all,” Halevi added.

The government’s tentative proposal would lower the age of final exemption from the army from the current 26 to 23 or 21.

While soldiers are generally drafted from age 18, many yeshiva students claim academic deferments and are thought to remain in religious study programs longer than they normally would in order to dodge the draft until they reach the age of final exemption. By lowering the permanent exemption age, the government hopes to spur those Haredi men to leave the yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.

The Haredi population of Israel overwhelmingly opposes performing mandated national civil or military service, seeing it as a way for secular forces to potentially draw away its members. Some more extreme elements in the Haredi community have protested violently against military conscription.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police as they protest against the arrest of a Haredi Jewish man who failed to comply with the military draft, in Jerusalem, September 29, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to Hebrew-language media reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to the ultra-Orthodox parties that a legislative memorandum for the draft bill would be previewed in the Knesset’s upcoming winter session in October.

The United Torah Judaism party reportedly notified cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs that without the draft bill, the government would collapse.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice invalidated a conscription law that gave sweeping exemptions to full-time religious scholars. A series of extended deadlines by which to legislate a new enlistment law expired at the end of July. In turn, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered the IDF in June to not draft ultra-Orthodox men until March 31, 2024. By then, the coalition expects that a bill exempting the ultra-Orthodox will pass.