Ultra-Orthodox students to be drafted into Israeli army – court

image caption, The ruling means tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men could now face the draft

  • author, Yolande Knell
  • stock, BBC Middle East Correspondent
  • Report from Jerusalem

Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in a landmark case that ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students must be drafted into the military.

Exemptions have long existed for young people enrolled in full-time religious studies to be forced, but the legal provision allowing the practice to continue has lapsed.

The move is likely to send shock waves through Israel’s ruling coalition, which includes ultra-Orthodox or Haredi parties.

Exemption from conscription for ultra-Orthodox men became a more pressing social issue due to the strain on the armed forces from the ongoing fighting against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“In the midst of a bitter war, the burden of inequality is more severe than ever and demands a solution,” the top judges said.

The Israeli army is often described as a “people’s army”, except for Israeli Arabs, most Israelis are required by law to serve in it.

A ruling by the country’s top court, referring to the recent spate of soldiers killed while fighting for their country, said: “The most precious thing of all – discrimination against life is the worst.”

Data seen by the court suggested that some 63,000 ultra-Orthodox men were exempt from full-time Torah study. The ruling means they are now likely to face the draft.

The court also ruled to freeze public funding for yeshivas that avoid enrolling students.

A lawyer representing the yeshiva association before the court, Shmuel Horowitz, told the BBC he was “not surprised by the decision, but disappointed,” adding: “The courts are not the appropriate forum to resolve these kinds of social issues.”

Asked about a possible response from the ultra-Orthodox community, he noted, “They stick to their religious teachers and don’t care much about the court.”

He suggested there is still time for the Israeli parliament to come up with a solution to expire the court ruling before it goes into recess at the end of July.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government relies for its survival on two ultra-Orthodox parties that view mandatory exemptions as a top political priority — Shas and United Torah Judaism.

They believe that keeping their blocks in Torah study is a way to protect the people of Israel and maintain their conservative customs.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri issued a negative statement in response to the verdict.

“There is no power in the world to cut off the people of Israel from studying the Torah, and anyone who has tried this in the past has failed miserably,” he said.

Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknapp, head of United Torah Judaism, also vowed that “the Holy Torah will prevail.”

The prime minister promoted a bill tabled by the previous government in 2022 that sought to compromise by calling for limited ultra-Orthodox inclusion.

In a statement, Likud said the law “significantly increases recruitment rates of ultra-Orthodox civilians, establishes institutional financial sanctions for failing to meet targets and recognizes the importance of Torah study.”

However, critics argue that the law was created before the war and is inadequate to deal with the current military manpower shortage.

As well as maintaining troop numbers in Gaza, the army is preparing for a potential war with the powerful Lebanese armed group Hezbollah. It has already mobilized forces into northern Israel, where there is daily shelling on the Lebanese border.

Over the years, there have been a series of legal challenges to the ultra-Orthodox waiver, and previous court rulings have found the system unfair. However, the Supreme Court refrained from making the final decision on the admission of yeshiva students and repeatedly referred the issue to parliament for legislation. It has proved impossible.

The history of exceptions for the ultra-Orthodox dates back to 1949 – a year after the creation of the State of Israel.

At the time, there were about 400 yeshiva students in Israel. Because the ultra-Orthodox community and its yeshivas were slaughtered in World War II, the country’s founding fathers allowed them to avoid military service.

In modern Israel, the demographics have changed dramatically. The ultra-Orthodox community has a high birth rate, which now accounts for 12% of the Israeli population.

Special military units already exist that allow ultra-Orthodox men to serve as combatants by creating conditions conducive to their religious beliefs and strict observance of Halakha, or Jewish religious law.

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