Israel's Supreme Court rules that ultra-Orthodox Jews must be drafted into the army

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

In a unanimous decision, nine justices found that there was no legal basis for the long-standing military exemption granted to many ultra-Orthodox religious students. Given the absence of a law distinguishing between seminarians and other men of military age, the court ruled that the country's compulsory service laws must apply equally to the ultra-Orthodox minority.

In a country where military service is mandatory for most Jewish men and women, exemption for the ultra-Orthodox has long been a point of contention for secular Israelis. But anger over the group's special treatment has grown as the war in Gaza has entered 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 problem,” the Supreme Court justices wrote in their ruling.

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

Netanyahu has called for legislation that would generally maintain exemptions for religious students. But if he goes ahead with the plan, other members of his government could break ranks amid growing public anger over the government's strategy for the war in Gaza.

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

The Supreme Court also took aim at this system in its ruling, saying the government could no longer transfer subsidies to religious schools, or yeshivas, that enrolled 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 founded to be the home of the Jewish people, for whom the Torah is the foundation of their existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” Yitzhak Goldknopf, an ultra-Orthodox minister, said in a statement Monday.

About 1,000 Haredi men currently serve voluntarily in the army – less than 1% of all soldiers – but the Hamas-led October 7 attack appears to spark a greater sense of shared destiny with traditional Israelis among some segments of the Haredi public . According to military statistics, more than 2,000 Haredim tried to join the army in the first 10 weeks of the war.

Gabby Sobelman AND Myra Novec contributed to the reporting.

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