U.S. Haredi leadership find consensus in lamenting Israel’s yeshiva draft changes

Leading Satmar newspapers decried the change using dramatic headlines and heated rhetoric, while the Agudah called the new rules a “war on the Torah”

Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, Satmar rebbe of Kiryas Joel, and other Haredi leaders. Credit: Mo Gelber

Apr 8, 2024 6:25 PM


Satmar and Agudah, historically at odds over Israel, found consensus on at least one issue: lamenting the ruling by Israel’s High Court to cease funding yeshivas and to end the exemption to the military draft for Haredi yeshiva students. 

“They have declared war on the Torah,” Agudah said in a statement regarding the Israeli authorities’ decision. 

“They have risen upon us to annihilate us,” the Satmar newspaper Der Blatt wrote, quoting a passage from the Passover Hagadah.

Since the founding of Israel in 1948, Haredi men studying in yeshivas have been exempt from Israel’s compulsory military service. But in late March, the Israeli high court ruled that yeshivas could no longer receive government funding for students who do not serve in the military, causing strong reactions among U.S. Haredi institutional leaders.

Both Der Yid and Der Blatt, two newspapers that reflect the Satmar Hasidic sect’s anti-Zionist stance, reacted with dramatic pronouncements to the change in the draft laws. 

Der Blatt, affiliated with Aaron Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe of Kiryas Joel, called the change “an imminent danger to tens of thousands of yeshiva students.” The newspaper also said that Kahal Yetev Lev, the main congregational body of Kiryas Joel, had a reply to the Israeli “High Court and chief heretics”: “We are ready to open our pockets,” they said, and provide funding to any yeshiva or congregation that “cuts all ties to the Zionist state.”  

Der Yid, affiliated with Zalmen Leib Teitelbaum, the Satmar rebbe of Williamsburg, declared that the 22nd day of Adar, the Hebrew date on which the new rules take effect, “will go down in Jewish history as a bitter day, for the apostasy draft decree.” Israeli yeshiva students, the newspaper said, will now have to “worship the Zionist idols” in the military, “the melting pot of heresy, apostasy and filth.”  

Both Satmar newspapers also lamented the fact that yeshivas relied on government funds to begin with, which Der Blatt referred to as “eating from Jezebel’s table,” a reference to the biblical wife of Ahab, king of Israel, who supported idol worshippers.

Agudath Israel of America, an organization that lobbies for Haredi interests, issued a more tame statement, though they, too, lamented the court decision.

“We share in Israel’s grief with concern and anxiety,” said Agudah’s rabbinical advisory board, also called the Moetzes, in a statement published in Hebrew on Sunday. But in changing its longstanding draft policy, the Israeli government is engaging in “religious persecution and threatening the continued existence of our people as the nation of Torah, and putting the entire nation in danger.”

Unlike Satmar, Agudah has advocated for U.S. support for Israel, even as it maintains that it is non-Zionist. But some of its lay leaders and certain members of the Moetzes have been in conflict over how to respond to the ongoing war in Israel. The tension broke out in the open last November, when the organization supported a pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C., and some Moetzes members later issued public statements opposing it.

At least one influential voice criticized the Moetzes letter as insufficiently pro-Israel. Gil Student, an Orthodox rabbi and blogger involved in the Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jewish communities, wrote in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that the Agudah statement was “way too strongly” worded.

The Israeli public’s disapproval of the Haredi yeshiva exemption has increased in recent months since Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct. 7, a period during which 600 Israeli soldiers have died, according to the Israeli Defense Forces.

Many Haredim who support the war believe that studying Torah is a better way to serve than joining the IDF. Some Haredi men told the Guardian that despite the recent change, they would not join the military.

The Times of Israel reported that, according to figures from the government, funding would be cut for 1,257 yeshivas enrolling 49,485 students who were receiving the yeshiva exemption. Haredi Israeli leaders hope to make up for some of the lost funding by raising money from Haredi American communities.