What the Court's ruling on the drafting of ultra-Orthodox instruments means for Israel

Tuesday's ruling by Israel's Supreme Court ending a decades-long exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews from the country's military service could herald a seismic shift in the country's trajectory, with social, political and security implications.

The ruling will likely further test Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fragile 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 18-year-old Jews, both men and women, are conscripted for years of mandatory service. Mainstream Israelis have long chafed at the lack of equality.

More recently, the months-long war in Gaza and looming conflicts on other fronts have underlined the military's need for more soldiers.

Many of Israel's ultra-Orthodox – known in Hebrew as Haredim, or those who fear God – grant the state only de facto recognition, rejecting the concept of secular Jewish sovereignty and military service.

Many Haredim, however, consider full-time Torah study to be of 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 homogeneous, with followers of some rabbinical courts more insular and protective of their community's special status than others.

Some haredim have chosen to join the army over the years, seek secular higher education, and become an integral part of Israeli society at large.

But other more hardline Haredim fear the image of the military as a melting pot and say that young men who enter the military as ultra-Orthodox come out secular. Ultra-Orthodox women do not serve.

Haredim make up approximately 13% of Israel's population. But it is a young community that prefers large families. As a result, its members make up an ever-increasing percentage of the country's conscription-age cohort.

Currently, an annual average of about 1,200 Haredim serve in the military, a small fraction of the ranks. And many of them are considered by the community to be religious dropouts or from the fringes of Haredi society.

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

The first exemptions were intended, among other things, to help restore the ranks of Torah scholars after they had been decimated during the Holocaust. Historians say that Ben-Gurion believed that in modern Israel ultra-Orthodoxy would decline 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 see as an unequal distribution of the national burden.

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

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

Netanyahu must now rush to find a legislative solution acceptable to the ultra-Orthodox parties, which 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 sets “a precedent for Israeli politics, for Israeli society and for the military,” said Shuki Friedman, vice president of the independent Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute and an expert on issues of religion and state.

While the discussion until now was always about equality, he said, the focus has shifted to the need for more soldiers, and the ultra-Orthodox are “one of the main sources of potential recruitment.”

Immediately after Tuesday's ruling, the office of Israel's Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara, sent instructions to government officials asking them to immediately implement the court's decision.

The letter states that the security institution has already committed to recruiting an additional 3,000 ultra-Orthodox seminary students over the next year. But it was not immediately clear when or how the military would choose those recruits from among the more than 60,000 draft-age students currently enrolled in religious seminaries on a duty-exempt basis.

“This is an initial figure for immediate recruitment that does not fully reflect the military's current needs and progress towards equitable burden sharing,” the letter reads, calling on authorities to come up with a more comprehensive plan.

Netanyahu's Likud party, meanwhile, has said it will push forward legislation that calls for small increases in Haredi recruitment but will largely codify the exemption of most others.

The bill may not win parliamentary approval in its current form, while any tightening of its terms could upset the rabbis and Haredi parties on which Netanyahu depends.

For now, it is likely that Netanyahu wants to buy time. The Haredi parties have little interest in overthrowing the government, which is the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel's history.

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

After the Hamas-led assault on Israel on October 7, which sparked the war in Gaza, there is a greater willingness to serve, according to Cohen.

In the aftermath of the attack, thousands of Haredim expressed their willingness to join the army.

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

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

Joining the military means replacing the typical black-and-white uniform of seminary students with a khaki suit and changing allegiance from rabbi to commander, he said. The military, she said, must build community trust by showing how conscripts can serve and remain Haredi.

Many Haredim enrolled in seminaries don't actually study all day, if at all. Since October 7, Cohen said, more and more Haredim have adopted the position that anyone who doesn't study can join the military.

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

Some rabbis have criticized the court's ruling because it places no value on the importance of Torah study, Cohen said.

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

“Those who go into the army today turn out to be defilers of the Sabbath,” he added.

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