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Israel Court calls Ultra-Orthodox men into army as crisis brews

Ethan Bronner and Galit Altstein, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the government to start conscripting Ultra-Orthodox men into military service, a landmark ruling that could test the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Tuesday decision — which also called for the state to stop funding seminaries whose students avoid the draft — highlights an issue that has long divided Israel and become particularly emotive since the start of the ongoing war with Hamas in October. Israel operates a system of mandatory military service but the Ultra-Orthodox, known as Haredim, have been exempt since the early days of the state.

Two religious parties joined with Netanyahu’s Likud in late 2022 to form a government on the understanding that their longstanding exclusion from being called up would be encoded into law. The court’s focus on equality is one of the reasons the government spent much of 2023 trying to limit the power of the judiciary.

The justices wrote that the present system “creates severe discrimination between those who are required to serve, and those whose recruitment procedures are not taken.”

Israel has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists since the invasion by Hamas militants on Oct. 7, which triggered the Gaza conflict. Many secular Israelis say the war — and the likelihood of higher defense spending for years to come due to threats from the likes of Hezbollah in Lebanon — makes it more unacceptable that religious Jews are exempt from military service.

“These days, in the midst of a difficult war, the burden of inequality is more acute than ever,” the court said in the ruling from a unanimous expanded bench of nine justices.

The drafting of Haredi men would likely deliver a boost for Israel’s economy, as it would relieve some of the burden from the technology and business sectors whose workforces make up most of Israel’s reserve forces. A plan to lengthen military service both for conscripts and reservists is expected to cost 100 billion shekels ($27 billion) in expenses and lost productivity over the next decade, a figure that would be reduced if the Ultra-Orthodox are drafted.

Controversial Exemption

Exemption from military service for the Haredim dates from when David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime Minister, agreed to permit some 400 Haredi students to study in seminaries, or yeshivas, rather than be drafted.

 

The policy had little impact when they were a tiny minority. But as Israel has grown wealthy, the group’s numbers have exploded and now constitute some 14% of Israel’s 10 million population, and an even larger share of recruitment-aged Israelis. The court quoted the state as saying there are currently 63,000 draft-age Haredi young men.

Benny Gantz, a leader of the opposition who recently left Netanyahu’s war cabinet, blamed the prime minister for the impasse, urging him to “reach agreements that will serve the country’s security needs” and not isolate different parts of society.

A spokesman for Likud said a “historic conscription law” is already working its way through parliament which would “significantly increase the recruitment rates of the Ultra-Orthodox public.”

Elections aren’t scheduled till 2026 and the Haredi parties may in any case decide their best bet is to stick with Netanyahu rather than try to form a new coalition with those further to the left.

Judicial Overhaul

Israel’s government had made overhauling the country’s judicial system a top priority before Oct. 7, sparking massive protests mostly by secular Israelis who argued that the planned changes would undermine the country’s democracy.

Haredim, whose dress and customs — white shirt, black trousers, coat and skullcap — stem from Eastern Europe, seek to be left alone to study and pray. They fear that forcing their young into the Israeli military will lure them from a cloistered existence into secular sin.

Many Haredi men spend their days, as did their fathers, in large seminary halls studying sacred texts but hold few jobs. They receive state subsidies and their wives mostly work.


©2024 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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