Israel-Hamas War: Supreme Court Rules Israeli Army Must Train Ultra-Orthodox Men

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men for conscription, a landmark decision that could lead to the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition as Israel continues its war in Gaza. .

The historic ruling effectively ends a decades-old system that gave ultra-Orthodox men broad exemptions from military service while maintaining mandatory conscription for the country’s secular Jewish majority. The arrangement, considered discriminatory by critics, has created a deep divide among Israel’s Jewish majority over who should shoulder the burden of defending the country.

The court struck down a law codifying the exemptions in 2017, but repeated court extensions and government delaying tactics on the alternative have dragged out a resolution for years. In the absence of the law, the court ruled that Israel’s mandatory military service applies to the ultra-Orthodox like any other citizen.

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

These exemptions have long drawn ire among secularists, a Widened cleavage During the eight-month war, the army has called up tens of thousands of soldiers and said it needs all the manpower it can get. More than 600 soldiers have been killed since Hamas’s October 7 offensive.

Politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties, key partners in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, Resist any change In the current system. If the exemptions end, they could break the coalition, bringing down the government and leading to fresh elections at a time when its popularity has fallen.

In the current environment, it may be difficult for Netanyahu to further delay the matter or pass legislation to restore the exemptions. During arguments, government lawyers told the court that conscription of ultra-Orthodox men would “tear apart Israeli society.” There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu’s office.

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The court ruling comes at a critical time as the war in Gaza drags into its ninth month and the death toll continues to rise.

In its ruling, it found that the government “engages in invalid selective enforcement, which represents a serious violation of the rule of law and the principle that all individuals are equal before the law.”

It did not say how many ultra-Orthodox would be drafted, but the military said it could enlist 3,000 this year.

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

The ruling by Israel’s Supreme Court must be followed, and the army is expected to begin doing so once it develops a plan on how to recruit thousands of members of a population deeply opposed to service. The military had no immediate comment.

The court also ruled that state subsidies to exempt ultra-Orthodox men’s seminaries must cease. Court Temporarily frozen Seminary budget earlier this year.

In a post on the social media site X, Cabinet Minister Yitzhak Goldknap, head of one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, said it was “very unfortunate and disappointing”. He did not say whether his party would win power.

“The State of Israel was established to be a home for the Jewish people, and the Torah is the foundation of its existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” he wrote.

The ultra-Orthodox see their full-time religious study as their role in protecting the state. Many fear that greater contact with the secular community through the military will alienate followers from strict adherence to the faith.

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Ultra-Orthodox men attend specialized seminaries that focus on religious studies, without much focus on secular topics such as math, English, or science. Critics have said they are unwilling to serve in the military or join a secular task force.

Religious women generally receive non-controversial exemptions because women do not serve in combat units.

The verdict now sets the stage for increased friction within the alliance over the draft issue. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers will face intense pressure from religious leaders and their constituents, and will have to choose whether it is worthwhile for them to remain in government.

The ultra-Orthodox “understand that they don’t have a great political alternative, but at the same time their public is asking ‘Why did we vote for you?’ they say,” Friedman said.

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

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

Netanyahu’s coalition is bolstered by two ultra-Orthodox parties that oppose increasing enrollment in their constituencies. The long-serving Israeli leader has sought to abide by the court’s rulings while scrambling to save his alliance. But with a slim majority of 64 seats in the 120-member parliament, he often focuses on the pet issues of smaller parties.

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The government could in theory try to legislate to restore the exemptions, but doing so would be politically challenging in light of the court’s ruling.

Some moderate members of the government have indicated that they only support legislation that lists a significant number of ultra-Orthodox, and the legislative clock will soon be running with the Knesset to leave for summer recess. It could force the military to start training cultists before any new law comes into effect.

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

But critics say the bill was drawn up before the war and does not go far enough to address manpower shortages as the army seeks to maintain its forces in the Gaza Strip and prepare for war with the Lebanese Hezbollah group. with Israel since the outbreak of war in Gaza last October.

With a high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest growing segment of the population, about 4% annually. Each year, approximately 13,000 ultra-Orthodox men turn 18, but fewer than 10% are registered, according to the State Control Committee of the Israeli Parliament.

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AP writer Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem contributed to this story.

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