Israel’s High Court, in Jolt to Netanyahu’s Government, Orders the Army To Draft Orthodox Men

Ruling effectively puts an end to a decades-old system that granted Orthodox men broad exemptions from military service.

Amir Levy/Getty Images
Orthodox Jewish men protest against the draft on June 2, 2024 at Bnei Brak, Israel. Amir Levy/Getty Images

JERUSALEM — Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that the military must begin drafting Orthodox men for compulsory service, a landmark decision that could lead to the collapse of Prime Minister 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 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 chasm in Israel’s Jewish majority over who should shoulder the burden of protecting the country. 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 Orthodox like any other citizen. Under longstanding arrangements, 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. More than 600 soldiers have been killed since Hamas’s October 7 attack.

Politically powerful Orthodox parties, key partners in Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Orthodox men to enlist would “tear Israeli society apart.” There was no immediate comment from Mr. Netanyahu’s office.

The court decision comes at a sensitive time, as the war in Gaza drags on into its ninth month and the number of military deaths 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 Orthodox should be drafted, but the military has said it is capable of enlisting 3,000 this year. Some 66,000 Orthodox men are now eligible for enlistment, according to an expert on religion and state affairs, Shuki Friedman,  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 deeply opposed to service. The army had no immediate comment.

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

In a post on X, Cabinet minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, who heads one of the 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 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 faith.

The Orthodox community, with its high birth rate, is the fastest-growing segment of Israel’s population, rising about 4 percent annually. Each year, roughly 13,000 Orthodox males reach the conscription age of 18, but less than 10 percent enlist, according to the Israeli parliament’s State Control Committee.

Associated Press

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