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Israel's top court rules ultra-Orthodox Jews must be drafted in military, setback for Netanyahu

Israeli PM Netanyahu's fragile ruling coalition is dependent on two ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups, who oppose conscriptions in the military. While public opinion has favoured an end to the exemptions amid conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah, it could destabilise the coalition.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Jerusalem Published on: June 25, 2024 16:29 IST
Israeli military, ultra Orthodox jews, conscription
Image Source : REUTERS Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest against changing the law granting exemption from military service.

Jerusalem: In a major setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students must be drafted into the military, a move that ended a long-standing exemption on their conscription and can divide the PM's governing coalition. The exemption to ultra-Orthodox Jews became a heated topic recently in view of Israel's conflicts with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Netanyahu's ruling coalition is dependent on two ultra-Orthodox parties who regard conscription exemptions as key to keeping their constituents in religious seminaries and away from a military where their conservative customs may be tested. Through this exemption, a large number of people in Israel have been exempted from joining the military in the past.

The leaders of these parties said they were disappointed with the ruling but issued no immediate threat to the government. The prospect of the military, backed by Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant, starting to draft seminary students could widen cracks in Netanyahu's fragile coalition, which has been embroiled in tensions over the Gaza war.

What did the Israeli Supreme Court say?

Most Jewish Israelis are bound by law to serve in the military from the age of 18, for three years for men and two years for women. Members of Israel's 21 percent Arab minority are exempt, though some do serve, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students have also been largely exempt for decades. 

However, the government continued to allow the seminary students to not serve in the military despite the law expiring last year. The Supreme Court ruled that in the absence of a new legal basis for the exemption, the state must draft them. The ruling also barred seminaries from receiving state subsidies if scholars avoid service without deferrals or exemptions. 

"At the height of a difficult war, the burden of inequality is more than ever acute," the court's unanimous ruling said. 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.”

Yitzhak Goldknopf, an Israeli cabinet minister who heads one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, called the ruling "very unfortunate and disappointing". "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 said.

Why do ultra-Orthodox Jews want exemptions?

The resistance of ultra-Orthodox groups to joining the military is based on their strong sense of religious identity, which many families fear risks being weakened by army service. They see the exemptions as existential as preventing their traditions and protecting Israel. On the other hand, many Israelis regard the war against Hamas as an existential battle for the future of the country, and the military is in dire need of conscripts.

For more than six years, the state had been asking the Supreme Court for more time to pass a new conscription law to resolve the issue. The new draft bill being hammered out in parliament could resolve the crisis if a wide agreement is reached. Otherwise, it could have the potential to bring Netanyahu's government down.

While public opinion has tended to favour removing the exemptions, his government includes two ultra-orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, whose departure could trigger new elections, which opinion polls indicate he would lose. However, some inside Netanyahu's Likud party have shown unease or opposition to the exemption, including Gallant.

The bill on conscription, which has already passed in a first reading, is continuing to work its way through parliament. If it is approved after that process - which could see some amendments - that may defuse any immediate crisis. 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.

(with inputs from Reuters, AP)

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