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Ruling on ultra-Orthodox military service could collapse Netanyahu’s government

Ruling on ultra-Orthodox military service could collapse Netanyahu’s government

Since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948, "Haredi" (or "ultra-Orthodox") men have been exempted from military service to study Torah instead.

Haredi students and their families would be subsidized by the state. At Israel's founding, Haredim made up less that 3 percent of the population. The military exemption was for just 400 exceptional students. In light of the devastation of centers of Jewish learning during the Holocaust, this was not an unreasonable proposition.

Even by 1975, the exemption was still only for 800 students. But under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the number of exemptions and government subsidies grew exponentially, along with the size of Haredi families.

Today, Haredi men make up roughly 24 percent of the pool from which the IDF drafts recruits. The Haredi population is projected to be 16 percent of the overall Israeli population by 2030 (roughly 2.2 million) and 20 percent of Israel’s Jewish population. In comparison, the Arab population of Israel is a bit over 20 percent (roughly 2.1 million).

In 1979, 85 percent of Haredi men had jobs; due to the increased subsidies, the figure had fallen below 50 percent by 1998. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition massively increased subsidies to the Haredi community — to the virtual neglect of the rest of the population — and ceded full control to the ultra-Orthodox of their own educational system, so that secular subjects like math and science need not be taught.

For decades, the military exemption and government subsidies have infuriated most Israelis, who felt that the burdens of citizenship — taxes and military service — were being borne by fewer and fewer.

This was especially true in the aftermath of the Hamas massacres of Oct. 7 and subsequent Gaza War, which put a tremendous strain on Israel’s reserve-based army. Many reservists are serving months at a time and one tour after another. It is wreaking havoc on families and businesses. Due to the pressures caused by the lack of manpower, this week the Netanyahu coalition proposed a bill extending the age of required reserve duty from 40 to 41 for soldiers, 45 to 46 for officers and 50 to 51 for specialists such as doctors and air crewmen.

Yesterday, an expanded panel of nine justices of the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government must start drafting Haredi men immediately. Funding for the religious schools they were attending must cease at least until the draft is initiated.

The Supreme Court panel included two very conservative justices and one moderately conversative justice — all three religiously observant.

The court noted: “Non-enforcement of the provisions of the Security Service Law creates severe discrimination between those who are required to serve and those who being exempted from army service.” The court went on to say that “in these days, in the midst of a severe war, the burden of inequality is more acute than ever.”

So, what happens now?

Ultra-Orthodox political parties control 18 seats in the Knesset, or 15 percent. That is further divided into 11 seats for the Shas party, representing Mizrachi or Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Jews, and seven seats for United Torah Judaism, representing ultra-Orthodox Jews of Eastern European descent. Shas draws support on the basis of its ethnic identity as a Mizrachi/Sephardic party, so its appeal goes beyond just religion, while United Torah Judaism’s voters are exclusively ultra-Orthodox.

The Netanyahu government has 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. If Shas or United Torah Judaism leave the coalition, the government will fall.

As recently as two weeks ago, both parties threatened to bolt the coalition if a Haredi conscription bill passed. But the parties are well aware that if Israel has new elections, the next government will be neither as sympathetic nor as beneficent to the ultra-Orthodox. The massive subsidies granted to the Haredi community are sure to be slashed.

Another possibility is that the government will introduce a new Haredi exemption law. But that is unlikely to pass, as many members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party oppose such a law, and the opposition would vote lockstep against it.

The likely result is that Netanyahu will slow-walk implementation of the court’s order and seek to soften the blow with increased subsidies or concessions in other areas — all of which will vex the approximately 80 percent non-Haredi population in Israel.

Jonathan D. Strum is an international lawyer and businessman based in Washington and the Middle East. From 1991 to 2005, he was an adjunct professor of the Israeli legal system at Georgetown University Law Center.


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