Israeli court mandates drafting of Ultra-Orthodox students


Israel’s Supreme Court recently made a landmark ruling, unanimously deciding that ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students must be drafted into the military. This decision overturns longstanding exemptions for young men engaged in full-time religious study, which had previously shielded them from conscription. The legal framework permitting these exemptions had expired, prompting the court to address the issue.

The ruling is poised to have significant repercussions within Israel’s governing coalition, which includes ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, parties. These parties have traditionally prioritized exemptions from military service for their constituents, citing religious and cultural reasons. However, the strain on Israel’s armed forces, exacerbated by ongoing conflicts such as the fighting against Hamas in Gaza, has intensified the debate over conscription fairness.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court highlighted the inequality caused by the exemption policy, particularly during times of national crisis. The court’s justices emphasized that all citizens should bear the burden of defending the nation equally, regardless of religious affiliation. They underscored the gravity of discrimination when it concerns matters as fundamental as the preservation of life.

The decision was welcomed by advocacy groups like the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which hailed it as a historic victory for equality and national solidarity. The ruling mandates the inclusion of approximately 63,000 ultra-Orthodox men currently enrolled in full-time Torah study into the conscription pool, marking a significant shift in Israeli policy.

Moreover, the court’s ruling includes a freeze on public funding for yeshivas (religious schools) whose students evade conscription. This measure underscores the court’s determination to enforce equal participation in national service across all sectors of Israeli society.

Not surprisingly, the ruling has sparked controversy within the ultra-Orthodox community, where adherence to religious leaders often shapes public opinion and response to governmental decisions. Many ultra-Orthodox leaders and politicians view military exemption as crucial for preserving their way of life and cultural identity.

Leaders of ultra-Orthodox parties within the Israeli parliament, crucial to the coalition government’s stability, have strongly opposed the ruling. They argue that Torah study is essential for the spiritual and moral protection of the Jewish people, suggesting that military service could undermine these values.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads a coalition reliant on ultra-Orthodox political support, had previously supported legislation that aimed to balance conscription requirements with respect for religious study. However, these efforts faced criticism for not adequately addressing the evolving demographic and security challenges facing Israel.

The historical context of the exemptions dates back to Israel’s founding in 1949, shortly after the Holocaust had devastated European Jewry, including many ultra-Orthodox communities. At that time, exemptions were granted to a small number of yeshiva students to allow them to rebuild their religious communities and institutions.

Today, the ultra-Orthodox community constitutes a significant portion of Israel’s population, with a high birth rate ensuring its continued growth. Despite this, only a small percentage of ultra-Orthodox men currently enlist in the military each year, creating tensions over equitable national service obligations.

Critics of the previous exemption policy argue that it perpetuated social inequalities and strained the military’s manpower resources during times of conflict. The court’s decision reflects a broader societal push towards greater equality and shared responsibility for national defense, irrespective of religious or cultural background.

The Israeli parliament faces the challenge of implementing legislation that aligns with the court’s ruling while navigating the complex political landscape. The potential withdrawal of ultra-Orthodox parties from the coalition could destabilize the government, potentially leading to early elections and further political uncertainty.

Supreme Court’s ruling represents a pivotal moment in Israel’s ongoing debate over the balance between religious freedoms and national obligations. It underscores the judiciary’s role in addressing longstanding societal issues and ensuring that all citizens contribute equitably to the nation’s defense and prosperity. As Israel continues to navigate these challenges, the outcome will significantly impact its social cohesion, military readiness, and political stability in the years to come.


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