Israeli Supreme Court rules ultra-Orthodox Jews must be conscripted into army

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the army must start conscripting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, a decision that threatened to split Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government in the midst of the war in Gaza.

The nine-judge panel unanimously ruled that the exemption from military service long granted to ultra-Orthodox religious students has no legal basis. The court ruled that in the absence of a law distinguishing between seminarians and other men of draft age, the country’s compulsory conscription law must apply to the ultra-Orthodox minority as well.

Military service is mandatory for most Jewish Israelis, both men and women, and exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews have long drawn resentment. But with the war in Gaza now in its ninth month, with tens of thousands of reservists serving multiple tours of duty and hundreds of soldiers losing their lives, anger over the special treatment given to ultra-Orthodox Jews is growing.

“Today, in the midst of a difficult war, the burden of that inequality is more severe than ever, calling for the promotion of sustainable solutions to this problem,” the Supreme Court said in its ruling.

The decision threatens to widen one of the most painful divisions in Israeli society, pitting ultra-Orthodox Jews, who say religious study is as important and protective as the military, against secular Jews. It also exposed rifts in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, which relies on the support of two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that oppose conscription of their constituents as other Israelis are killed and wounded in Gaza.

Israeli courts have ruled against the exemption before, including in Supreme Court decisions in 1998, 2012 and 2017. The Supreme Court has repeatedly warned the government that it needs to enshrine the policy in law if it is to continue, though the law would likely be subject to constitutional challenges just like its predecessors, while giving the government time to rigorously consider the bill.

But in the seven years since the previous law was repealed, successive Israeli governments have delayed drafting a new one. The law finally expires in 2023, and the Israeli government has ordered the military not to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews while lawmakers consider exceptions.

On Tuesday, the court finally indicated it had reached the end of its patience and invalidated the order as illegal. It did not set a deadline for when the army would begin conscripting tens of thousands of draft-age religious students. Such a move would likely pose major logistical and political challenges and face massive resistance from the ultra-Orthodox community.

Israel’s Attorney General Gali Bahrav Miara said in a letter to government officials on Tuesday that the military has committed to conscripting at least 3,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews over the next year out of more than 60,000 of draft age. He noted that this number does not come close to closing the military service gap between ultra-Orthodox Jews and other Israeli Jews.

Instead, the ruling included a measure to pressure ultra-Orthodox Jews to accept the court’s decision: halting millions of dollars in government subsidies to the religious schools, so-called yeshivas, that had previously supported the exempt students, dealing a blow to respected institutions at the heart of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

The court’s decision poses a threat to Netanyahu’s fragile wartime coalition, which includes secular lawmakers who oppose the exemption and ultra-Orthodox parties who support it. A defection from either group could lead to the government’s collapse and new elections at a time when public support for the government is low. The opposition in Israel’s parliament mainly wants the exemption scrapped.

The Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack, which sparked an eight-month war in Gaza, has softened the ultra-Orthodox position on conscription somewhat, with some leaders saying anyone who cannot study the Bible should serve in the army.

“Still, the maximum amount the ultra-Orthodox community is willing to give is far less than what the general Israeli public is willing to accept,” said Israel Cohen, a commentator on the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama.

But ultra-Orthodox parties, with few acceptable alternatives, may not be as keen to topple Netanyahu’s coalition, Cohen said. “They have no alternative, so they will try to hang on to the coalition as long as possible,” Cohen said. “They will be more willing to compromise than they were a year ago to stay in power.”

For now, the military must plan for the possibility of welcoming thousands of soldiers into the military who oppose conscription and whose insular nature and traditions are at odds with a modern fighting force.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank, said the court’s decision “destroys a deep political wound at the heart of the coalition” and that Netanyahu must now urgently address it.

In a statement, Netanyahu’s Likud party criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling at a time when the government plans to pass legislation that would make the case obsolete, which it said would recognize the importance of religious studies while increasing the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews conscripted into the military.

It’s unclear whether Netanyahu’s proposal ultimately will withstand judicial scrutiny, but if passed by parliament, the new law could face years of legal battles, buying the government more time, Plesner said.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday immediately sparked outrage among ultra-Orthodox politicians, many of whom see military service as a gateway to assimilation into Israel’s secular society and leading young people to deviate from a lifestyle guided by the Torah, Judaism’s holy book.

“The State of Israel was founded to be a homeland for the Jewish people whose very existence is founded on the teachings of Judaism. The holy law will prevail,” ultra-Orthodox Jewish government minister Yitzhak Goldnopf said in a statement on Monday.

After the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, Israelis were united in their determination to fight back. But rifts in Israeli society quickly resurfaced as thousands of reservists were called up to serve second and third tours of duty in Gaza.

Some Israeli analysts have warned that the war could spread to further fronts in the West Bank and on the northern border with Lebanon, prompting the government to call for more troops and further straining relations between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Already many Israelis — secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox — see the conscription issue 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 the founding of Israel in 1948, when the country’s leaders promised them autonomy in exchange for help creating a mostly secular state. At the time, there were only a few hundred yeshiva students.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews number more than one million and make up about 13 percent of Israel’s population. They wield considerable political influence, with their elected leaders acting as deputies to the king and playing key roles in most of Israel’s coalition governments.

But as the ultra-Orthodox have grown in power, so has their anger at being denied military service and their relatively small contribution to the economy. In 2019, Netanyahu’s former ally Avigdor Lieberman turned down an offer from him to join a coalition government that would have legislated an exemption for the ultra-Orthodox from military service, a decision that forced Israel into repeated elections, five times in four years.

After Netanyahu returned to power last year at the helm of the current coalition government, he sought to enact legislation to weaken the judiciary, sparking mass protests. For ultra-Orthodox Jews who supported judicial reform, the main motivation was to prevent the Supreme Court from blocking draft evasion.

Lt. Col. Ron Sherff of the Israeli Reserves said many soldiers resented having to serve multiple tours of duty during the war, even though Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews “never got called up in the first place.”

“How can Israel allow an entire community to be exempt from civic duties?” asked Sherf, an activist with Brothers in Arms, a group of reservists opposed to Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Gaby Sobelman, Jonathan Rice and Myra Noveck Contributed report.

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