Israel’s High Court rules that strictly Orthodox must serve in army

Move threatens Netanyahu’s coalition


Charedi teens handcuffed themselves in Jerusalem in protest at the draft proposals in 2023 (Photo:Flash 90)

Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled by 9-0 on Tuesday that the government must draft strictly Orthodox men into the military.

“The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that at this time there is no legal framework that makes it possible to distinguish between students of the yeshivahs and others with regard to mandatory military service”, said the two-page ruling by the nine-justice panel. As such, the state does not have the authority to prevent their enlistment, it continued.

Moreover, as there is no legal mechanism to support their exemption from service, “It is not possible to continue transferring support funds for yeshivahs and kollels for students who did not receive an exemption or whose military service was not postponed,” the ruling states.

The court called the current exemption scheme, whereby yeshivah students receive temporary deferrals until reaching the age of exemption from service, “unconstitutional.”

The document concludes by accusing the government of “seriously undermining the rule of law, and the principle according to which all individuals are equal before the law,” by continuing to delay the enlistment of strictly Orthodox men.

The petitioners had argued that the state must begin drafting yeshivah students because the law exempting them from mandatory service expired last year. The government representative requested that the court reject the petitions and instead allow the Knesset to continue the legislative process toward a solution, but the court refused.

Israel’s strictly Orthodox disapprove of army service, considering it a distraction from Torah study and a threat to their way of life. However, the Hamas attack on October 7 heightened the demands of the general public that the strictly Orthodox contribute their share to the defence of the nation.

The enlistment bill currently working its way through the Knesset reflects Netanyahu’s attempt to find an agreed formula with the strictly Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism), which have threatened to quit the government if the mass of Charedi yeshivah students are drafted.

The Charedi parties have for years made up the most stable element of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, their constancy won by the prime minister’s readiness to continue funding their seminaries and providing other benefits. According to reports, Charedi political leaders have told Netanyahu that if he passes a law with which they don’t agree, they will quit his government, but that if it’s the court that imposes a solution, they will stick by him.

Tuesday’s ruling comes on the heels of a contentious hearing yesterday at the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, where lawmakers debated Netanyahu’s enlistment bill (originally put forward by National Unity head Benny Gantz in the previous government).

The bill seeks to lower the age of exemption from mandatory service for ultra-Orthodox yeshivah students from 26 to 21, in an effort to get more charedi men to enter the labour force. The draft legislation would also gradually increase charedi enlistment, setting an strictly Orthodox conscription target of 35 per cent of male students by 2036. There are currently 63,000 Haredi men eligible for the draft.

Following Tuesday’s ruling, Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee chairman Yuli Edelstein (Likud) pledged to continue working on the bill.

Deliberations regarding the draft legislation were “continuing as usual” in his committee, despite the ruling, he tweeted.

Prior to Tuesday’s ruling, United Torah Judaism Knesset member Moshe Gafni tweeted, “There has never been a ruling by the Supreme Court in favour of the members of the yeshivahs and in the interest of the ultra-Orthodox public. There is not a single judge there who understands the value of learning the Torah and their contribution to the people of Israel in all generations.”

Then, following the ruling, he tweeted: “As I said.”

UTJ chairman Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf called the ruling “expected and very unfortunate.”

“The State of Israel was established as a home for the Jewish people, whose Torah is the bedrock of its existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” he said.

The contentious issue of strictly Orthodox conscription has angered even members of Netanyahu’s party. Likud Knesset member Dan Illouz, who sits on the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, said yesterday, “I am not going to give a hand to the law if it does not meet the current needs of the army. Otherwise, I won’t be able to look my fellow reservists in the eyes.”

Labour Party chief Yair Golan tweeted following the ruling: “Congratulations on a just decision of the High Court of Justice…The duty of security and civil service should apply to every young Israeli man and woman, regardless of religion, race and gender.”

Knesset members such as Gideon Sa’ar, Avigdor Liberman and Oded Forer quoted former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, writing: “There are judges in Jerusalem.”

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