Israel’s Supreme Court Rules Ultra-Orthodox Jews Must Be Drafted Into Military

Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, a decision that threatened to split Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government amid the war in Gaza.

In a unanimous decision, nine justices held that there was no legal basis for the longstanding military exemption given to many ultra-Orthodox religious students. Given the absence of a law distinguishing between seminarians and other men of draft age, the court ruled, the country’s compulsory service laws must similarly apply to the ultra-Orthodox minority.

In a country where military service is compulsory for most Jewish men and women, the exemption for the ultra-Orthodox has long been a source of contention for secular Israelis. But anger over the group’s special treatment has grown as the war in Gaza has stretched into its ninth month, requiring tens of thousands of reservists to serve multiple tours and costing the lives of hundreds of soldiers.

“These days, in the midst of a difficult war, the burden of that inequality is more acute than ever — and requires the advancement of a sustainable solution to this issue,” the Supreme Court justices wrote in their ruling.

The court’s ruling pits secular Jews against the ultra-Orthodox, who say their study of scripture is as essential as the military to defending Israel. It also exposes the fault lines in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, which depends on the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties amid the country’s deadliest war in decades.

Mr. Netanyahu has called for legislation that would generally maintain the exemption for the religious students. But if he moves ahead with the plan, other members of his government might break ranks amid rising public anger over the government’s strategy for the war in Gaza.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been exempt from military service since the founding of Israel in 1948, when the country’s leadership promised them autonomy in exchange for their support in creating a largely secular state. Along with being exempted from the draft, the ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as Haredim, are allowed to run their own education system.

The Supreme Court took aim at that system as well in its ruling, stating that the government could no longer transfer subsidies to religious schools, or yeshivas, that registered draft-age students whose exemptions were no longer legal.

The decision immediately sparked outrage among ultra-Orthodox politicians, who vowed to oppose it.

“The State of Israel was established in order to be a home for the Jewish people, for whom Torah is the bedrock of their existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” Yitzhak Goldknopf, an ultra-Orthodox minister, said in a statement on Monday.

Roughly 1,000 Haredi men currently serve voluntarily in the military — less than 1 percent of all soldiers — but the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack has appeared to prompt a greater sense of shared destiny with mainstream Israelis among some segments of the Haredi public. More than 2,000 Haredim sought to join the military in the first 10 weeks of the war, according to military statistics.

Gabby Sobelman and Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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