Middle East

Will Israel’s ultra-Orthodox soon have to join the army?

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis are not yet required to do military service. Because there is no legal basis for this, the judiciary demanded a law by the end of March, but this is not yet available. Will the privilege now fall for the ultra-Orthodox?

Starting Monday, Israel’s government must stop funding ultra-Orthodox young men who study in yeshivas – strict religious seminaries – and do not join the army.

This interim order from the Supreme Court, issued on Thursday evening, is causing strong domestic political reactions.

Representatives of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, accused the Supreme Court of an “unprecedented hunt for Torah scholars in the Jewish state.” The verdict is a disgrace. No compromises will be made.

The two parties are coalition partners in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and have fundamentally rejected the drafting of young yeshiva students into the armed forces for decades.

Exempt from military service since the founding of the state

Since the founding of Israel, young ultra-Orthodox men have been more or less exempt from compulsory military service. It is a privilege that the state’s founder, Ben Gurion, gave them back then and that is increasingly being questioned by the secular population in times of the Gaza war. The secular population bears, among other things, the main burden of military and reserve service in the armed forces as well as the tax burden.

Former Israeli Justice Minister Daniel Friedman, who taught law at Tel Aviv University for many years, said on public radio: “The State of Israel is creating an ultra-Orthodox culture that does not exist in this form anywhere else in the world in which the yeshiva leaders have state-granted control over their population group.”

Coalition break in the dispute over ultra-Orthodox

The Supreme Court had asked the Netanyahu government to submit a new conscription law more than six years ago. The reason: There is no legal basis for the current practice of de facto exempting young ultra-Orthodox men from military service.

When Netanyahu wanted to continue the privileges for the ultra-Orthodox, his coalition partner at the time, Avigdor Lieberman, left the coalition. The result was a series of new elections.

Judicial reform to protect privileges

Finally, in December 2022, when Netanyahu entered into a new coalition government with the two ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, as well as the two far-right parties of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the new government’s main focus turned to the Supreme Court.

There is, writes Carolina Landsmann in the Friday edition of the newspaper Ha’aretz, a clear connection between the so-called judicial reform and conscription for ultra-Orthodox: It was clear to the Netanyahu government “that any unequal conscription law would be overturned by the Supreme Court.”

That’s why she set about changing the powers of the Supreme Court. The goal was clear: “After the passage of unconstitutional laws, such as the blanket exemption of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from army service, a law was needed that would allow the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions.” But that didn’t happen yet.

The Supreme Court gave a final reprieve

When in June 2023 nothing had been done regarding conscription reform, the Supreme Court gave the government a final extension until the end of March 2024 to submit its draft. The current situation would then be ended without replacement.

This scenario is now in favor of the Prime Minister’s coalition government. As of Thursday afternoon, Netanyahu had not reached an agreement despite intensive negotiations with the two ultra-Orthodox parties.

Threatening to end the coalition

In the previous days, a bill had been circulated that would have significantly expanded the privileges of the ultra-Orthodox population – currently around 13 percent of Israel’s ten million inhabitants. Both Defense Minister Yoav Galant and Minister Benny Gantz, former army chief and chairman of the National Unity Party, then expressed massive criticism. They would no longer want to belong to such a government.

Gantz said in a video message this week: “Introducing a law that the government wants to pass will harm unity (among the people) and security (of the state). We are drawing a red line here. My party members and I cannot be part of a government that passes such a law in a time of war.”

Verdict on Sunday?

Following the Supreme Court’s interim order to end state subsidies for ultra-Orthodox men of military age from April 1, the main issue is still pending as to whether young ultra-Orthodox men will also be subject to compulsory military service.

This verdict can come as early as Sunday. Unless the court grants Netanyahu’s request for a further 30-day delay.

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