Israel’s Supreme Court Rules Military Must Start Drafting Ultra-Orthodox Men After Years of Exemption

Israel’s Supreme Court Rules Military Must Start Drafting Ultra-Orthodox Men After Years of Exemption

**Israel’s Supreme Court Rules Military Must Start Drafting Ultra-Orthodox Men After Years of Exemption**

In a landmark decision, Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that the government must end its long-standing practice of exempting ultra-Orthodox men from mandatory military service. This ruling, issued on Thursday, mandates the cessation of government subsidies for many ultra-Orthodox men who have avoided military service, a move that could have significant implications for the Israeli government and the ultra-Orthodox community.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now faces a critical challenge in maintaining his coalition government, which is already under strain following the October 7 attack by Hamas. The ultra-Orthodox parties, which have been steadfast allies of Netanyahu, are demanding that the draft exemptions continue. However, centrist members of his War Cabinet, including former military generals, argue that all sectors of Israeli society must contribute equally, especially during the ongoing conflict with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

The ultra-Orthodox community, which constitutes about 13% of Israel’s population, has traditionally been exempt from the nearly three-year mandatory military service required of most Jewish men and the two-year service required of Jewish women. These exemptions have allowed ultra-Orthodox men to study full-time in religious seminaries, a practice that has been supported by government stipends until the age of 26. This system has long been a source of contention among the general public, particularly during the current war, which has seen over 500 Israeli soldiers killed.

The Supreme Court has deemed the current exemption system discriminatory and has given the government until Monday to present a new plan, with a final deadline of June 30 to implement it. Netanyahu has requested a 30-day extension to find a compromise, but the court has yet to respond to this request. In the meantime, the court has issued an interim order to freeze government funding for religious students aged 18 to 26 who have not received a military deferral in the past year, effective April 1.

This ruling will impact approximately one-third of the 180,000 seminary students who currently receive government subsidies for full-time religious study. While the governing coalition’s discretionary funds might temporarily cover these subsidies, the long-term implications remain uncertain.

Benny Gantz, a key political rival of Netanyahu and a member of the War Cabinet, praised the court’s decision, emphasizing the need for all members of society to participate in national service, especially during times of war. The Israeli army, which views mandatory military service as a unifying experience and a rite of passage, has expressed concerns about manpower shortages due to the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

The ultra-Orthodox community, however, argues that military service threatens their traditional way of life and that their religious devotion is as crucial to Israel’s security as a strong military. Religious leaders have vowed to resist any attempts to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the army, and mass protests have been staged in the past against similar efforts.

Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, condemned the court’s decision as “unprecedented bullying of Torah students in the Jewish state.” Netanyahu, in his letter to the Supreme Court requesting an extension, argued that forced enlistment without a mutually agreed-upon arrangement could have counterproductive effects.

The issue of drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the military has been a contentious one since the early days of the Israeli state. In 1949, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding father, granted exemptions to 400 yeshiva students. Over the years, the number of exemptions has grown significantly, and the ultra-Orthodox community has become a crucial political ally for Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s political survival now hinges on his ability to balance the demands of the ultra-Orthodox parties with those of other coalition members who insist on equal contribution to the war effort. The ongoing conflict with Hamas has intensified public frustration with the exemptions, with a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute showing that 70% of Israeli Jews support ending the blanket exemptions.

The court’s ruling has been met with strong reactions from both sides. Ultra-Orthodox leaders view it as a betrayal of Netanyahu’s promises, while many Israelis see it as a necessary step towards equality. If the ultra-Orthodox parties withdraw from the coalition in protest, it could trigger new elections at a time when Netanyahu’s popularity is waning.

The war has also increased Israel’s need for soldiers, and there are limited options to address this need. Extending the length of service for current draftees or increasing the duty performed by reserves are potential solutions, but drafting more ultra-Orthodox men remains a contentious option.

Netanyahu’s request for a 30-day extension to draft a new conscription bill was unsuccessful, but Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has left room for a transition period in which financial sanctions will be frozen. This could allow the government to delay a final decision, but the underlying tensions remain.

The ultra-Orthodox community argues that yeshiva study is as important as military service, with some believing that their religious devotion protects Israel. Behind the scenes, ultra-Orthodox parties are still hoping to negotiate a deal, but they are prepared to push for elections if necessary.

The ongoing war has added urgency to the issue, but it also makes it more likely that Netanyahu’s coalition will hold together for now. The threat of further escalation in the region serves as a unifying factor for the coalition, despite the deep divisions over military exemptions.

Ultimately, the issue of drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the military is a fundamental one for Israeli society. It highlights the tension between maintaining traditional religious practices and ensuring equal contribution to national defense. As Israel navigates this complex issue, the future of its society and state hangs in the balance.

Source: Associated Press, The Washington Post

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