Home News What the court ruling on drafting ultra-Orthodox law means for Israel

What the court ruling on drafting ultra-Orthodox law means for Israel

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Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that it ended a decades-long policy exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from serving in the country’s military, potentially signaling a major change in the country’s trajectory with social, political and security implications.

The ruling is likely to further strain Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fragile governing coalition, which relies on the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties that back exemptions despite Israel’s ongoing war in the Gaza Strip.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox exemptions has long polarized the country, where most 18-year-old Jewish youths, both men and women, are conscripted to serve years of compulsory military service. Mainstream Israelis have long been angry about the lack of equality.

More recently, the months-long Gaza war and looming conflicts on other fronts have highlighted the military’s need for more soldiers.

Many of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox (called Haredim in Hebrew, meaning God-fearing people) give only de facto recognition to the Israeli state, rejecting the idea of ​​secular Jewish sovereignty and participation in the military.

In contrast, many Haredim place the highest value on full-time Torah study and believe that such scholarship has ensured the survival of the Jewish people for centuries.

But Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority is far from homogeneous, with some followers of the rabbinic courts being more conservative and more defensive of their community’s special status than other believers.

Over the years, some Haredis have chosen to join the military, seek secular higher education, and become part of Israeli society.

But other more staunch Haredi believers worry about the army’s image as a melting pot and say young men who join the army as ultra-Orthodox will become secularized. Ultra-Orthodox women do not join the army.

The Haredim make up about 13 percent of Israel’s population. But it is a young group that favors large families. As a result, its members make up a growing portion of the country’s draft-age population.

Currently, an average of about 1,200 Haredis serve in the military each year, a small fraction of the rank and file. The community believes many of them are religious apostates or from the margins of Haredi society.

In 1948, shortly after Israel was founded, the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempted 400 religious seminary students from military service and agreed to exempt them in the future as part of an arrangement that gave the ultra-Orthodox a degree of autonomy in exchange for their support for a secular state.

The early exemptions were intended to help restore the ranks of Torah scholars devastated by the Holocaust. Historians say Mr. Ben-Gurion believed that ultra-Orthodoxy would decline or eventually disappear in modern Israel.

Instead, the Haredim have become the fastest-growing group in Israel, leading many Israeli experts to conclude that the mass exemption model is no longer sustainable. Much of the Israeli public is unhappy with the uneven sharing of the state’s burdens.

After decades of legal patchwork and years of government delays, the issue has now come to a head, with courts ruling that long-standing military exemptions have no legal basis because all temporary laws and orders have expired.

This issue will not only lead to the division of the country, but may also lead to the collapse of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition in the Gaza war.

Netanyahu must now work to find a legislative solution acceptable to both the ultra-Orthodox who support the exemption and his secular and nationalist allies who oppose it, or he risks losing his government.

Shuki Friedman, deputy director of the independent Jewish Policy Institute in Jerusalem and an expert on religion and state, said the ruling took Israel into “new territory” and “sets a precedent for Israeli politics, Israeli society and the military.”

If the discussion so far has been about equality, he said, the focus has shifted to the need for more soldiers, with the ultra-Orthodox being “a major source of potential recruits.”

Shortly after Tuesday’s ruling, the office of Israeli Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara sent instructions to government officials, calling on them to immediately implement the court’s decision.

The letter said security agencies had pledged to recruit 3,000 more ultra-Orthodox seminarians into the military over the next year. But it was unclear when and how the military would select those recruits from the more than 60,000 students currently enrolled in religious seminaries who are exempt from military service.

The letter states: “These are initial figures for immediate recruitment and do not fully reflect the current needs of the military and progress towards equal burden sharing,” and calls on authorities to develop a more comprehensive plan.

Netanyahu’s Likud party, meanwhile, said it would move forward with legislation that would modestly increase recruitment of haredi members but would largely codify immunity for most other members.

The bill in its current form would likely fail to win parliamentary approval, and any of its harsh provisions would likely upset the rabbinical and haredi parties on which Netanyahu relies.

For now, Netanyahu may be able to stall. The Haredi parties have little interest in overthrowing the most right-wing and religiously conservative government in Israel’s history.

But Israel Cohen, a prominent Haredi commentator on ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Berama, said the court’s decision undoubtedly had a “negative impact” on the government.

Mr. Cohen said Israeli willingness to serve has increased since the Gaza war, which was sparked by a Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

After the attack, thousands of Haredim expressed their willingness to join the army.

Yitzik Crombie, an ultra-Orthodox entrepreneur who runs programs to help community members integrate into these fields, said many young Haredis increasingly want to join the military, pursue higher education and find employment.

“But they are very afraid,” he said, “of losing their special identity, culture and unique way of life. Being haredi means being cut off from the rest of society.”

Joining the military means exchanging the black-and-white uniforms of seminarians for khaki uniforms and switching allegiance from rabbis to commanders, he said. The military must earn the trust of the community by showing recruits how to serve and maintain their Haredi beliefs, he said.

Many Haredim who attend seminaries don’t actually study all day, or at all. Mr. Cohen said that since Oct. 7, more and more Haredim have begun to take the position that those who don’t study can join the military.

But even as attitudes toward conscription are changing among some segments of society, others remain vehemently opposed to it.

Cohen said some rabbis criticized the court’s ruling, arguing that it downplayed the importance of studying the Torah.

Rabbi Moshe Maya, who is close to the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key partner in Netanyahu’s coalition, told Kol Berama on Wednesday that “the sons of Torah are prohibited from serving in the army.”

He added: “Those who join the army today are clearly Sabbath violators.”

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