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The Israeli Supreme Court rules that ultra-Orthodox Jews must be drafted into the army

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the army must begin recruiting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, a decision that risks dividing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government amid war in Gaza.

In a unanimous decision, a panel of nine justices held that there was no legal basis for a permanent military exemption for ultra-Orthodox religious students. The court ruled that in the absence of a law distinguishing between seminarians and other men of military age, the country’s draft conscription laws must similarly apply to minorities under Ultra-Orthodox.

In a country where military service is mandatory for most Jewish Israelis, both men and women, exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox have long caused outrage. But anger over the group’s special treatment is growing as the war in Gaza drags on into its ninth month, requiring tens of thousands of reservists to serve multiple tours and claiming the lives of civilians. hundreds of soldiers.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said: “Today, in the midst of a difficult war, the burden of that inequality is more acute than ever – and requires the need to promote a solution sustainability for this issue”.

The decision threatens to widen one of the most painful divisions in Israeli society, pitting secular Jews against ultra-Orthodox who consider religious learning Theirs are as necessary and protective as the military. It also exposed cracks in Netanyahu’s coalition, which depends on the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties that oppose conscription of their voters, even as other Israelis are killed and executed. trade in Gaza.

Israeli courts have ruled against the exemption before, including the 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 – although that law will face constitutional challenges, as previous laws have – and give the government time to review our laws.

But in the seven years since the last law was repealed, successive Israeli governments have balked at drafting new laws. In 2023, the law finally expired, leading the Israeli government to order the military to simply not draft the extremist law while lawmakers studied the issue of exemptions.

On Tuesday, the court said that its patience had finally run out, dismissing the order as illegal. It does not set a timeline for when the military must begin conscripting tens of thousands of draft-age religious students. Such a move would likely be logistically and politically challenging, and would be met with massive resistance from the ultra-Orthodox community.

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

Instead, the ruling included a measure to pressure the ultra-Orthodox to accept the court’s ruling: a suspension of millions of dollars in government subsidies for religious schools , or Yeshivas, which have previously supported exempt students, dealing a blow to respected institutions at the heart of the ultra-Orthodox community.

The court ruling threatens Netanyahu’s fragile wartime coalition, which includes secular members who oppose the impunity and ultra-Orthodox parties that support it. Either group breaking ranks could cause the government to fall and call for new elections, at a time when popular support for the government is low. The opposition in the Israeli Parliament largely wants to end the exemption.

Hamas-led attacks on October 7 – sparking an eight-month war in Gaza – have somewhat softened the ultra-Orthodox stance on the draft, with some leaders saying that those who cannot study the Bible should join the army.

“However, the maximum the ultra-Orthodox community is willing to offer is much less than what the general public is willing to offer,” said Israel Cohen, a commentator for Kol Barama, an ultra-Orthodox radio station. Israel is generally willing to accept.”

But, he said, ultra-Orthodox parties, with few reasonable options, may not want to bring down Netanyahu’s coalition. “They don’t see an alternative, so they’re going to try to make it work as long as possible,” Mr. Cohen said. “They will compromise more than they might have been willing to a year ago in an effort to protect the government.”

The military must now devise a plan to welcome thousands of soldiers who oppose service and whose traditions and isolation clash with a modern fighting force.

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

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

It is unclear whether Netanyahu’s proposal will ultimately be subject to judicial scrutiny. But if passed by Congress, the new law could face years of court challenges, giving the government more time, Plesner said.

Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision immediately sparked outrage among ultra-Orthodox politicians. Many ultra-Orthodox see military service as a gateway to integration into a secular Israeli society, which would cause young people to deviate from a lifestyle guided by the Torah, the Jewish scriptures. Thai.

“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 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on October 7, Israelis united in their determination to fight back. But when thousands of reservists were asked to serve their second and third tours of duty in Gaza, cracks in Israeli society quickly reappeared.

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

Already many Israelis — secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox — see the draft issue as just one skirmish in a broader culture war over the country’s increasingly uncertain future.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt from military service since the founding of Israel 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 Yeshiva students.

The ultra-Orthodox have grown to more than a million, accounting for about 13% of Israel’s population. They wielded considerable political power and their elected leaders became founding fathers, present in most of Israel’s coalition governments.

But as the ultra-Orthodox’s power grew, so did anger over their failure to join the army and their relatively small contribution to the economy. In 2019, Avigdor Lieberman, a former Netanyahu ally, rejected an offer to join a coalition that would legislate exemptions from the draft for the ultra-Orthodox. This decision forced Israel to conduct repeated elections – 5 in 4 years.

Last year, after Netanyahu returned to power under his current coalition, he sought to legislate a plan to weaken the country’s judiciary, sparking mass protests. For the ultra-Orthodox, who favor judicial reform, the primary motive is to ensure that the Supreme Court can no longer hinder their ability to avoid the draft.

Ron Scherf, a lieutenant colonel in Israel’s reserve forces, said many soldiers felt frustrated at having to do multiple tours during the war, even if Israelis were ultra-Orthodox “from the beginning has never been called into the army.”

An activist with Brothers in Arms, a collective of reservists opposing Netanyahu, Mr. Scherf asked, “How can Israel allow an entire community to be exempt from its civic duties?”

Gabby Sobelman, Johnatan Reiss And Myra Noveck Report contributions.


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