What the Court’s Ruling on Drafting the Ultra-Orthodox Means for Israel

The Israeli Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday that ended a decades-old exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews from serving in the country’s military could herald a seismic change in the trajectory of the country, with social, political and security implications.

The ruling is likely to further strain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brittle governing coalition, which depends on the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties that support the exemption, even as Israel is at war in Gaza.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox exemption has long polarized a country where most Jewish 18-year-olds, both men and women, are conscripted for years of obligatory service. Mainstream Israelis have long bristled over a lack of equality.

More recently, the monthslong war in Gaza and looming conflicts on other fronts have underscored the military’s need for more soldiers.

Many of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox — known in Hebrew as Haredim, or those who fear God — afford the state only de facto recognition, rejecting the notion of secular Jewish sovereignty and of serving in the military.

Instead, many Haredim view full-time Torah study as a supreme value and argue that this scholarship has ensured the survival of the Jewish people for centuries.

But the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel is far from homogenous, with the followers of some rabbinical courts more insular and protective of their community’s special status than others.

Some Haredim have chosen to join the military over the years, to seek a secular higher education and to become more a part of Israeli society at large.

But other more hard-core Haredim fear the military’s image as a melting pot and say young men who go into the army as ultra-Orthodox come out secular. Ultra-Orthodox women do not serve.

The Haredim make up about 13 percent of Israel’s population. But it is a young community that favors large families. As a result, its members make up an ever-growing proportion of the country’s draft-age cohort.

At present, a yearly average of about 1,200 Haredim serve in the military, a tiny fraction of the rank and file. And many of those are considered by the community to be religious dropouts or hailing from the fringes of Haredi society.

Soon after Israel’s founding in 1948, the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempted 400 yeshiva, or religious seminary, students from military service and agreed to future exemptions as part of an arrangement to grant the ultra-Orthodox a measure of autonomy in exchange for their support in creating a largely secular state.

The early exemptions were intended, among other things, to help restore the ranks of Torah scholarship after they were decimated in the Holocaust. Historians say Mr. Ben-Gurion believed that in modern Israel, ultra-Orthodoxy would diminish or eventually disappear.

Instead the Haredim have become the fastest-growing part of Israel’s population, leading many Israeli experts to conclude that the model of mass exemptions is no longer sustainable. Resentment has grown among large segments of the Israeli public over what they view as unequal sharing of the national burden.

After decades of legal patchwork and years of governmental procrastination, the issue has now come to a head. With all the temporary laws and orders now expired, the court ruled that the longstanding military exemption has no legal basis.

In addition to dividing the country, the issue has the potential to collapse Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition amid a costly war in Gaza.

Mr. Netanyahu must now scramble to find a legislative solution acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox parties, who support the exemption, and his more secular and nationalist allies, who oppose it, or risk losing his government.

The ruling takes Israel into “new territory” and constitutes “a precedent for Israeli politics, for Israeli society and for the army,” said Shuki Friedman, vice president of the independent, Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute and an expert on matters of religion and state.

If the discussion up to now was always about equality, he said, the focus has shifted to the need for more soldiers, and the ultra-Orthodox are “a major source for potential recruitment.”

Soon after Tuesday’s ruling, the office of Israel’s attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, sent instructions to government officials calling on them to immediately implement the court’s decision.

The letter said that the security establishment had already committed to drafting an additional 3,000 ultra-Orthodox seminary students over the coming year. But it was not immediately clear when or how the military would choose those recruits out of the more than 60,000 students of draft age currently enrolled in religious seminaries with exemptions from service.

“This is an initial number for immediate recruitment that does not fully reflect the current needs of the military and the advancement of an equal sharing of the burden,” the letter stipulated, calling on the authorities to come up with a more comprehensive plan.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, in the meantime, said it would push ahead with legislation that calls for small increases in Haredi recruitment but would largely codify the exemption of most others.

The bill might not gain Parliament’s approval in its current form, while any toughening of its terms could upset the rabbis and the Haredi parties Mr. Netanyahu depends on.

For now, Mr. Netanyahu is likely to play for time. The Haredi parties do not have much interest in toppling the government, which is the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history.

But the court ruling, said Israel Cohen, a prominent Haredi commentator with Kol Berama, an ultra-Orthodox radio station, certainly created a “negative dynamic” for the government.

Since the Hamas-led assault on Israel on Oct. 7, which prompted the war in Gaza, there is a greater readiness to serve, according to Mr. Cohen.

In the aftermath of the attack, thousands of Haredim expressed a willingness to join the military.

Many younger Haredim increasingly want to participate in the army, higher education and the work force, said Yitzik Crombie, an ultra-Orthodox entrepreneur who runs several programs to help members of the community integrate into those areas.

“But they are very afraid,” he said, “to lose their special identity, their culture, their unique way of life. To be a Haredi is to be separate from other society.”

Joining the army means swapping the black-and-white signature uniform of seminary students for khaki fatigues and switching allegiance from a rabbi to a commander, he said. The military, he said, must build the community’s trust by showing how conscripts can serve and remain Haredi.

Many Haredim enrolled in seminaries do not actually study all day, if at all. Since Oct. 7, Mr. Cohen said, more Haredim have been adopting the position that whoever is not studying can join the army.

But even as attitudes toward service are changing in some parts of the community, others remain vehemently opposed to conscription.

Some rabbis attacked the court ruling for placing no value on the importance of Torah study, Mr. Cohen said.

Rabbi Moshe Maya, who is closely affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a key partner in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, told Kol Berama on Wednesday that “a son of the Torah is forbidden to enlist.”

“Those who go to the army today come out as Sabbath desecraters,” he added.

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