Israel’s High Court rules government must draft ultra-Orthodox
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against proposals for joining the IDF. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon.

In its unanimous ruling, the nine-justice panel called the current situation unconstitutional, and accused the government of “seriously undermining the rule of law.”

By Troy Osher Fritzhand
June 25, 2024

Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled by 9-0 on Tuesday that the government must draft ultra-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 ultra-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 ultra-Orthodox consider military service a distraction from Torah study and a threat to their way of life. However, Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and the ensuing war have heightened the demands of the general public that the haredim contribute their share to the defense of the nation.

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

The haredi 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, haredi 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 Defense Committee, where lawmakers debated Netanyahu’s enlistment bill (originally put forward by National Unity Party 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 haredi men to enter the labor force. The draft legislation would also gradually increase haredi enlistment, setting an ultra-Orthodox conscription target of 35% of male students by 2036. There are currently 63,000 haredi men eligible for the draft.

Following Tuesday’s ruling, Foreign Affairs and Defense 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.

Gantz also reacted to the news, accusing Netanyahu of seeking a solution to maintain his coalition, not to solve the conscription issue.

It is not “too late to reach agreements that will serve the country and lead to Israeli service,” he said. “The service is a security necessity as well as a moral obligation, not in place of the world of the Torah, but so that we can continue to exist in the country of all of us—ultra-Orthodox, Arabs and all parts of society, together. The time has come for an outline of Israeli service,” he added.

In a statement released following the ruling, the Likud party said, “The real solution to the recruitment problem is not a ruling that will be relevant for a short period, but the completion of the historic recruitment law which is currently being prepared for a second and third reading. It is strange that the High Court, which for 76 years refrained from forcing the conscription of yeshiva members, is doing so now.”

The statement reiterated that the law being debated was written by Gantz, and accused him and other opposition members as not supporting it because they want to overthrow the government.

Prior to Tuesday’s ruling, United Torah Judaism Knesset member Moshe Gafni tweeted, “There has never been a ruling by the Supreme Court in favor of the members of the yeshivas 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 Yitzchak 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.

Jerusalem Affairs and Jewish Heritage Minister Meir Porush (UTJ) warned that the ruling could lead to “two states” in Israel. “One, this is the country that is being run as it is now. And another country where the members of the yeshivahs will continue to study Torah as they used to in the country that [Israel’s first prime minister, David] Ben-Gurion declared. There is no power in the world that can force a person whose soul longs to study Torah to refrain from it,” he said.

Shas Party chairman Aryeh Deri, a member of the prime minister’s inner circle, blasted the decision, saying, “The Jewish people survived persecutions, pogroms and wars only thanks to maintaining its uniqueness—the Torah and the mitzvot. This is our secret weapon against all enemies, as promised by the Creator of the World.”

Deri concluded by saying the attempt to draft yeshivah students will “fail miserably.”

The contentious issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription has roiled even members of Netanyahu’s own party. Likud Knesset member Dan Illouz, who sits on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told JNS 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.”

Labor 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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