Israel's Supreme Court rules that ultra-Orthodox Jews must be drafted into the army

Israel's Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the military must begin conscripting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, a decision that threatens to split Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government amid the war in Gaza.

In a unanimous decision, a nine-judge panel found that there was no legal basis for the long-standing military exemption granted to ultra-Orthodox religious students. Without a law distinguishing between seminarians and other men of military age, the court ruled, the country's mandatory bills must apply equally to the ultra-Orthodox minority.

In a country where military service is mandatory for most Israeli Jews, both men and women, the exemption for the ultra-Orthodox has long sparked resentment. But anger over the group's special treatment has grown as the war in Gaza has entered its ninth month, requiring tens of thousands of reservists to serve multiple tours and costing the lives of hundreds of soldiers.

“These days, in the midst of a difficult war, the burden of this inequality is more acute than ever and requires the promotion of a sustainable solution to this problem,” the Supreme Court said in its ruling.

The decision risks widening one of the most painful divisions in Israeli society, pitting secular Jews against the ultra-Orthodox, who say their religious study is as essential and protective as their military one. It also exposed flaws in Netanyahu's coalition, which depends on the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties that oppose the conscription of their voters, even as more Israelis are killed and wounded in Gaza.

Israeli courts have ruled against the exemption before, including Supreme Court decisions in 1998, 2012 and 2017. The Supreme Court has repeatedly warned the government that to continue this policy, it must be written into law, even if such law would be subject to constitutional challenges. , as previous ones were, while at the same time giving the government time to hammer home our legislation.

But for seven years, since the last law was repealed, successive Israeli governments have delayed drafting new laws. In 2023, the law finally reached its expiration date, leading the Israeli government to order the military simply not to conscript ultra-Orthodox while lawmakers worked on an exemption.

On Tuesday, the court indicated that its patience had finally run out, declaring that order illegal. No deadline has been set for the military to begin conscripting tens of thousands of religious students of military age. Such a move would likely prove to be a huge logistical and political challenge, as well as encounter mass resistance from the ultra-Orthodox community.

Gali Baharav-Miara, Israel's attorney general, in a letter to government officials on Tuesday, said the army was committed to recruiting at least 3,000 ultra-Orthodox religious students – out of more than 60,000 of military age – over the next year. He noted that this number would not come anywhere close to closing the gap in military service between the ultra-Orthodox community and other Israeli Jews.

Instead, the ruling provided a means to pressure the ultra-Orthodox to accept the court's ruling: the suspension of millions of dollars in government subsidies given to religious schools, or yeshivas, that previously supported exempt students, hitting venerated institutions at world level. the heart of the ultra-Orthodox community.

The court's ruling threatens Netanyahu's fragile wartime coalition, which includes secular members who oppose the exemption and ultra-Orthodox parties who support it. Both groups could cause the government to collapse and call new elections, at a time when popular support for the government is at its lowest. The opposition in Israel's parliament largely wants to end the exemption.

The Hamas-led attacks on October 7 – which triggered the eight-month war in Gaza – have somewhat loosened the ultra-Orthodox stance on the draft, with some leaders saying that those who cannot study the Scriptures should join the army. 'army.

“However, the most that the ultra-Orthodox community is willing to give is much less than what the Israeli public is willing to accept,” said Israel Cohen, a commentator on Kol Barama, an ultra-Orthodox radio station.

But ultra-Orthodox parties, with few attractive options, may not be eager to topple Netanyahu's coalition, he said. “They don't see an alternative, so they're going to try to make this work as long as they can,” Mr. Cohen said. “They will compromise more than they might have been willing to do a year ago in an effort to preserve government.”

For now, the Army must come up with a plan to potentially welcome into its ranks thousands of soldiers who are opposed to military service and whose insularity and traditions are at odds with a modern fighting force.

The court's decision creates an “open political wound at the heart of the coalition” that Netanyahu now must urgently address, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank.

In a statement, Netanyahu's Likud party criticized the Supreme Court for issuing the ruling while the government was planning to pass legislation that would make the case obsolete. The government's proposed law, the party said, would increase the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts while recognizing the importance of religious study.

It was unclear whether Netanyahu's proposal would ultimately withstand judicial scrutiny. But if passed by Parliament, a new law could face years of court challenges, buying the government further time, Plesner said.

The Supreme Court's decision on Tuesday immediately sparked outrage among ultra-Orthodox politicians. Many ultra-Orthodox see military service as a gateway to assimilation into a secular Israeli society that would lead young people to deviate from a lifestyle guided by the Torah, the Jewish scriptures.

“The State of Israel was founded to be the home of the Jewish people, for whom the Torah is the foundation of their existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” Yitzhak Goldknopf, an ultra-Orthodox government minister, said in a statement Monday.

After the October 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, Israelis united in their determination to fight back. But when thousands of reserve soldiers were asked to serve second and third shifts in Gaza, fault lines in Israeli society quickly resurfaced.

Some Israeli analysts warn that the war could spread to other fronts in the West Bank and the northern border with Lebanon, leading the government to call for more conscripts and further strain relations between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Already many Israelis – secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox – see the draft draft as just one skirmish in a broader cultural battle over the country's increasingly uncertain future.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been exempt from military service since Israel's founding in 1948, when the country's leadership promised them autonomy in exchange for their support in creating a largely secular state. At that time there were only a few hundred students in the yeshivah.

The ultra-Orthodox have grown to more than a million people, about 13 percent of Israel's population. They wield considerable political clout and their elected leaders have become kingmakers, present in most Israeli coalition governments.

But as the power of the ultra-Orthodox grew, so did anger over their failure to join the army and their relatively small contribution to the economy. In 2019, Netanyahu's former ally Avigdor Lieberman rejected his offer to join a coalition that would legislate the ultra-Orthodox exemption bill. The decision helped send Israel to repeat elections, five in four years.

Last year, after returning to power at the helm of his current coalition, Netanyahu sought to legislate a plan to weaken the country's justice system, sparking mass protests. For the ultra-Orthodox, who supported judicial review, one of the main motivations was to ensure that the Supreme Court could no longer hinder their ability to avoid the draft.

Ron Scherf, a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli reserves, said many soldiers were frustrated at having to serve multiple tours of duty during the war, even though ultra-Orthodox Israelis “never get called up.”

An activist with Brothers in Arms, a group of reserve soldiers who oppose Netanyahu, Scherf asked: “How can Israel allow an entire community to be exempt from its civic duties?”

Gabby Sobelman, Johnatan Reiss AND Myra Novec contributed to the reporting.

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