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Israel: Army Must Draft Ultra-Orthodox 06/25 06:07


   JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that 
the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men for compulsory service, a 
landmark decision that could lead to the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin 
Netanyahu's governing coalition as Israel continues to wage war in Gaza.

   The historic ruling effectively puts an end to a decades-old system that 
granted ultra-Orthodox men broad exemptions from military service while 
maintaining mandatory enlistment for the country's secular Jewish majority. The 
arrangement, deemed discriminatory by critics, has created a deep chasm in 
Israel's Jewish majority over who should shoulder the burden of protecting the 

   The court struck down a law that codified exemptions in 2017, but repeated 
court extensions and government delaying tactics over a replacement dragged out 
a resolution for years. The court ruled that in the absence of a law, Israel's 
compulsory military service applies to the ultra-Orthodox like any other 

   Under longstanding arrangements, ultra-Orthodox men have been exempt from 
the draft, which is compulsory for most Jewish men and women.

   These exemptions have long been a source of anger among the secular public, 
a divide that has widened during the eight-month-old war, as the military has 
called up tens of thousands of soldiers and says it needs all the manpower it 
can get. Over 600 soldiers have been killed since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack.

   Politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties, key partners in Netanyahu's 
governing coalition, oppose any change in the current system. If the exemptions 
are ended, they could bolt the coalition, causing the government to collapse 
and likely leading to new elections at a time when its popularity has dropped.

   In the current environment, Netanyahu could have a hard time delaying the 
matter any further or passing laws to restore the exemptions. During arguments, 
government lawyers told the court that forcing ultra-Orthodox men to enlist 
would "tear Israeli society apart."

   A statement from Netanyahu's Likud party criticized the ruling, saying a 
bill in parliament backed by the Israeli leader would address the draft issue. 
Critics say it falls short of Israel's wartime needs.

   "The real solution to the draft problem is not a Supreme Court ruling," the 
statement said.

   The court decision comes at a sensitive time, as the war in Gaza drags on 
into its ninth month and the number of dead soldiers continues to mount.

   In its ruling, the court found that the state was carrying out "invalid 
selective enforcement, which represents a serious violation of the rule of law, 
and the principle according to which all individuals are equal before the law."

   It did not say how many ultra-Orthodox should be drafted, but the military 
has said it is capable of enlisting 3,000 this year.

   Some 66,000 ultra-Orthodox men are now eligible for enlistment, according to 
Shuki Friedman, an expert on religion and state affairs and the vice-president 
of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

   The ruling of Israel's highest court must be followed, and the military is 
expected to begin doing so once it forms a plan for how to draft thousands of 
members of a population that's deeply opposed to service, and which follows a 
cloistered and modest lifestyle the military may not be immediately prepared to 
accommodate. The army had no immediate comment.

   The court also ruled that state subsidies for seminaries where exempted 
ultra-Orthodox men study should remain suspended. The court temporarily froze 
the seminary budgets earlier this year.

   In a post on the social media platform X, Cabinet minister Yitzhak 
Goldknopf, who heads one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, called 
the ruling "very unfortunate and disappointing." He did not say whether his 
party would bolt the government.

   "The state of Israel was established in order to be a home for the Jewish 
people whose Torah is the bedrock of its existence. The holy Torah will 
prevail," he wrote.

   The ultra-Orthodox see their full-time religious study as their part in 
protecting the state. Many fear that greater contact with secular society 
through the military will distance adherents from strict observance of the 

   Ultra-Orthodox men attend special seminaries that focus on religious 
studies, with little attention on secular topics like math, English or science. 
Critics have said they are ill-prepared to serve in the military or enter the 
secular work force.

   Religious women generally receive exemptions that are not as controversial, 
in part because women are not expected to serve in combat units. The ruling 
does not address the status of Israel's Palestinian citizens, who are not 
required to serve and most of whom do not. As descendants of Palestinians who 
remained in Israel after the 1948 war that led to its creation, their ties to 
the military are more fraught and some in Israel see them as a fifth column 
because of their solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

   Tuesday's ruling now sets the stage for growing friction within the 
coalition over the draft issue. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers are likely to face 
intense pressure from religious leaders and their constituents and may have to 
choose whether remaining in the government is worthwhile for them. Previous 
court rulings on the issue and threats of enlistment have sparked protests and 
violence between ultra-Orthodox and police.

   Friedman said the ultra-Orthodox "understand that they don't have a better 
political alternative, but at same time their public is saying 'why did we vote 
for you?'"

   The exemptions have faced years of legal challenges and a string of court 
decisions has found the system unjust. But Israeli leaders, under pressure from 
ultra-Orthodox parties, have repeatedly stalled.

   The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which has helped lead the 
challenge against the exemptions, called on the government to immediately draft 
all eligible seminary students. "This is their legal and moral duty, especially 
in light of the complex security situation and the urgent need for personnel" 
in the army, said Tomer Naor, head of the group's legal department.

   Netanyahu's coalition is buoyed by two ultra-Orthodox parties who oppose 
increasing enlistment for their constituents. The long-serving Israeli leader 
has tried to adhere to the court's rulings while also scrambling to preserve 
his coalition. But with a slim majority of 64 seats in the 120-member 
parliament, he's often beholden to the pet issues of smaller parties.

   The government could in theory try to draft a law that restores the 
exemptions, but doing so will be politically challenging in light of the 
court's ruling.

   Some moderate members of the government have indicated they will only 
support a law that enlists sizable numbers of ultra-Orthodox, and the 
legislative clock is running out with the Knesset soon to leave for summer 
recess. That could force the military to begin drafting religious men before 
any new law is in place.

   Netanyahu has been promoting a bill tabled by a previous government in 2022 
that sought to address the issue by calling for limited ultra-Orthodox 

   But critics say that bill was crafted before the war and doesn't do enough 
to address a pressing manpower shortfall as the army seeks to maintain its 
forces in the Gaza Strip while also preparing for potential war with the 
Lebanese Hezbollah group, which has been fighting with Israel since the war in 
Gaza erupted last October.

   With its high birthrate, the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest-growing 
segment of the population, at about 4% annually. Each year, roughly 13,000 
ultra-Orthodox males reach the conscription age of 18, but less than 10% 
enlist, according to the Israeli parliament's State Control Committee.

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