Ultra-Orthodox Faction Recruits Women in Drive Against Israeli Army Draft

The army's 'disregard for anything connected to religion was terrible,' tells mother of one conscript to thousands of women gathered at conference on the topic.

Ultra-Orthodox men and women at a protest against the draft to the Israel army in Jerusalem, February 9, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Just days after tumultuous demonstrations around the country protesting the draft of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the Israeli army, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who heads an extreme faction of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community, has begun recruiting women into the anti-conscription effort.

On Sunday, thousands of women affiliated with Auerbach’s community attended a conference on the issue at the Jerusalem Convention Center. It attracted particular attention for publicizing a message by an unidentified ultra-Orthodox mother who wrote of her shock over the drafting of her son into the Israel Defense Forces’ Givati Brigade. The message was read by one of the organizers of the conference said to be related to the woman.

“I was in shock, breathless and speechless,” wrote the mother, recounting that the “language, the style, the conduct and the manner of speech” of her son’s commanders were hurtful to him and that “the disregard for anything connected to religion was terrible.” Sources in Auerbach’s community confirm that the statement is in fact from the mother of an ultra-Orthodox conscript.

The mother’s words reflects the fear of the draft among members of the Haredi community. The major concern is that soldiers will assimilate and lose their ultra-Orthodox identity.

“My Yossi told me that even on the [army] bus, his friends replaced their black skullcaps with other colors,” the mother’s message recounts. “There are those who ask if it’s true that there are ‘hunters,’” she wrote, referring to army recruiters. “It’s true! They go around the yeshiva verifying who is not placed in [institutions of] learning and stick to them.”

Her statement included allegations of a campaign of pressure and lies directed at yeshiva students by the so-called “hunters,” who she claims are paid for their work and motivated by the financial benefits. The yeshiva student who joins the army later regrets it, the mother said, claiming that the food that ultra-Orthodox recruits receive is not kosher and that the setting makes it impossible to fully comply with religious requirements.

The mother said that Auerbach had convinced her son not to enlist in an IDF technology program but he was later enticed to join the Givati Brigade. After she learned that her son had decided to enlist, she said she “cried and prayed at the Western Wall and begged the Almighty to help my Yossi remain Haredi and withstand this difficult trial.” She said she summoned her strength and accompanied her son to the enlistment center. “I wouldn’t wish for any of you to be in this position,” she wrote in her message to the women in the audience.

The conference was the leading front-page article in the Hapeles newspaper of Auerbach’s followers. The newspaper dedicated an editorial to the community's women who have to face such a prospect “in the dead of night even when their dear son is diligently studying Talmud in a yeshiva.” It is the mothers, the editorial states, who have to deal with “threatening phone calls and various and sundry warnings and pressures.”

“Nevertheless, [the mothers] calmly ignore the military draft orders in the absolute faith in the obligation of the instructions of our rabbi [Auerbuch],” says the editorial. “It is they who continue to fulfill the role of the Jewish mother.”

The Jerusalem yeshiva student for whom the recent demonstrations were organized, Avraham Perzicherter, was due to be released from military prison yesterday after ten days' detention. He had not arranged an exemption from the draft and the IDF deemed him a deserter. Even though he is expected to be released to house arrest, members of Auerbach's faction are attempting to organize a welcome event for him.

On Monday, the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim website published a response to the statement of the soldier's mother that was read at the conference. The writer, who says she is a ultra-Orthodox woman whose son also served in the Givati Brigade, describes herself as “a loving and proud Haredi mother” of several sons who are engaged in religious study and another “no less wonderful” son who served as a combat soldier and “as an outstanding commander who sanctified the Lord in a wondrous manner over his entire service.”