Middle East

Israel may soon draft ultra-Orthodox Jews. What does it mean for the war and Netanyahu?

Mick Krever

The Israeli Supreme Court issued a ruling on Tuesday ordering the government to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military. Since Israel’s founding, ultra-Orthodox Jews have been exempt from mandatory military service. The court also said that the government could no longer fund any religious schools (called “yeshivas”) whose students don’t participate in the draft.

Though both men and women are subject to Israel’s mandatory conscription, the ruling only applies to ultra-Orthodox men.

Who are the ultra-Orthodox?

The ultra-Orthodox, known as “Haredim,” in Hebrew, practice a form of Judaism that is marked by stringent religious observance and strict lifestyles.

They make up around 14% of Israel’s 9.5 million citizens, and are the fastest-growing segment of the population. Because they are disproportionately young, they make up 24% of recruitment-age Israelis, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

Why don’t they serve in the military?

Some do, but far fewer than most Israeli Jews. The vast majority do not participate in the country’s mandatory military service.

For ultra-Orthodox men, studying Judaism’s religious texts is central not only to their own lives but – they believe – the preservation of all of Judaism, and even the defense of Israel.

Torah study begins in the teenage years and often continues into young adulthood. It is a full-time pursuit that precludes secular study, participating in the workforce (and therefore paying taxes) – or serving in the military, as most non-ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews do.

Technically, the military service exemption applied to young men who were actively studying at a yeshiva. In practice, anyone who tells a recruiter that he studies at yeshiva – anyone who presents themselves to be ultra-Orthodox – can get out of service.

“The Jewish people survived persecutions, pogroms and wars only thanks to the preservation of their uniqueness – the Torah and the mitzvot,” the head of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party said on Tuesday, referring to the 613 commandments that rule orthodox Jewish life.

“This is our secret weapon against all enemies, as promised by the Creator of the world. Even here, in the Jewish state, alongside our precious fighters who sacrifice their lives against the enemies, we will continue to guard those who learn the Torah, which preserves our special power and creates miracles in battle.”

What did the Supreme Court say?

In essence, the court said that the ultra-Orthodox could not be treated differently from other Israeli Jews. The law that mandates military service, it said, also applies to them. (Palestinian citizens of Israel remain exempt from service.)

“There is no legal framework that makes it possible to distinguish between yeshiva students and those destined for military service,” the court said in its ruling. The government “seriously harmed the rule of law and the principle according to which all individuals are equal before the law.”

Why is it important now?

The fight over whether the ultra-Orthodox should serve in the military is nothing new.

Their exemption is as old as the state of Israel itself – in place from its founding in 1948. The Supreme Court ripped up that longstanding rule 50 years later, telling the government that allowing the ultra-Orthodox to get out of conscription violated equal protection principles. In the decades since, successive governments and Knessets (the Israeli parliament) have tried to solve the issue, only to be told repeatedly by the court that their efforts were illegal.

The latest government attempt to paper over the problem, in place since 2018, expired at the end of March.

It of course took on new significance on October 7, when Hamas and other militant groups crossed over from Gaza and killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, and took hundreds captive.

The months since have put incredible strain on Israel’s military, and particularly on the reservists who have been called up for extended tours of duty. Growing fears of a full-scale war with Lebanon only add to those worries.

Ultra-Orthodox politicians argue that the fight over getting them to serve is being used a political bludgeon, and that the military has no manpower problem. The Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) leaders disagree.

“We want to move forward, not because it’s nice, [but] first of all because it’s necessary,” IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said recently. “Every such battalion that we establish, an ultra-Orthodox battalion, decreases the need for the deployment of many thousands of reservists thanks to the mandatory service people.”

The ultra-Orthodox service exemption has also stoked resentment among Israelis who have spent months away from their families while serving in the military, and seen loved ones killed. It has further opened the religious-secular divide in Israel that has always been present, but has grown, especially as the ultra-Orthodox share of the population increases.

What does it mean for the war?

In the short term, probably very little.

Because the ultra-Orthodox have such strict religious practices, they usually serve in special units. The IDF is working to expand those units, but it will take time.

“According to the calculations of the army, there were 1,800 that were conscripted last year,” Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute, said after Tuesday’s ruling. “The army needs to do some change in order to conscript them. According to the army, next year the army can receive 4,800.”

Israel’s Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon instructed the government on Tuesday to immediately begin recruitment of an additional 3,000 ultra-Orthodox men, which the military has already said it could accommodate.

He also that that “in light of the current needs of the army and to promote equality in the burden,” the military must “develop and present a recruitment plan to increase this number.”

Where it could have a bigger impact is if it causes Israel’s governing coalition to fall apart, which is entirely possible.

Why is this ruling bad news for Netanyahu?

When Netanyahu formed his government coalition in late 2022, he included two ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – to form a thin majority.

Because yeshiva study is so important to those parties, this ruling could have big ramifications.

For the moment, they seem to be downplaying the decision, saying they have no plans to pull out of the coalition. Despite the court’s ruling, the ultra-Orthodox parties are still trying to pass legislation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, that would enshrine the draft exemption in law.

Because the IDF doesn’t have the capacity yet to draft the ultra-Orthodox into special units, it’s unlikely that many will be drafted anytime soon. Once those draft orders start going out, the court’s order for the government to stop funding yeshivas whose students refuse to serve could have a big impact – and affect whether the ultra-Orthodox party leaders still think there’s benefit to being part of the government.

What comes next?

This story has been full of endless twists and turns. It will almost certainly not be the final word.

Netanyahu’s Likud party, along with his ultra-Orthodox allies, will continue to try to pass a law enshrining the draft exemption in law. But as the past decades have proven, there is little guarantee that they will be able to do that in a way that satisfies the Supreme Court.

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