Israel-Hamas War: Supreme Court Rules Israeli Army Must Train Ultra-Orthodox Men

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox recruits for military service, potentially leading to the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition as Israel continues its war in Gaza.

In the absence of a law distinguishing between Jewish seminary students and other draft trainees, the court ruled that Israel’s mandatory military service system applies to the ultra-Orthodox just like any other citizen.

Under longstanding arrangements, ultra-Orthodox men are exempt from the draft, which is mandatory for most Jewish men and women. These exemptions have long drawn ire among secularists, a Widened cleavage During the eight-month war, the army has called up tens of thousands of soldiers and said it needs all the manpower it can get. More than 600 soldiers were killed.

Politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties, key partners in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, Resist any change In the current system. If the exemptions end, they will break the coalition, collapse the government and lead to new elections.

During arguments, government lawyers told the court that conscription of ultra-Orthodox men would “tear apart Israeli society.”

The court ruling comes at a critical time as the war in Gaza drags into its ninth month and the death toll continues to rise.

The court found that “the government is carrying out an invalid selective enforcement which is in grave violation of the rule of law and the principle that all persons are equal before the law”.

It did not say how many ultra-Orthodox were to be drafted.

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The court also ruled that state subsidies to exempt ultra-Orthodox men’s seminaries must cease. Court Temporarily frozen Seminary budget earlier this year.

In a post on the social media site X, Cabinet Minister Yitzhak Goldknapp, head of one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, said it was “very unfortunate and disappointing”. He did not say whether his party would win power.

“The State of Israel was established to be a home for the Jewish people, and the Torah is the foundation of its existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” he wrote.

The ultra-Orthodox see their full-time religious study as their role in defending the State of Israel. Many fear that greater contact with the secular community through the military will alienate followers from strict adherence to the faith.

Ultra-Orthodox men attend specialized seminaries that focus on religious studies, without much focus on secular topics such as math, English, or science. Critics have said they are unwilling to serve in the military or join a secular task force.

Religious women generally receive non-controversial blanket exemptions because women do not serve in combat units.

The ruling now sets the stage for growing friction within the coalition between more ultra-Orthodox supporters of the draft and opponents of the idea. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers will face intense pressure from religious leaders and their constituents, and will have to choose whether it is worthwhile for them to remain in government.

Shuki Friedman, vice president of the Jewish People’s Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, said the ultra-Orthodox “understand they don’t have a better political alternative, but at the same time their public is saying, ‘Why did we vote for you?'”

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The exemptions have faced legal challenges over the years and a string of court rulings have found the system unfair. But Israeli leaders, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, have repeatedly stalled. It is unclear whether Netanyahu can do so again.

Netanyahu’s coalition is bolstered by two ultra-Orthodox parties that oppose increasing enrollment in their constituencies. The long-serving Israeli leader has sought to abide by the court’s rulings while scrambling to save his alliance. But with a slim majority of 64 seats in the 120-member parliament, he often focuses on the pet issues of smaller parties.

Netanyahu is promoting a bill tabled by the previous government in 2022 that sought to address the issue of ultra-Orthodox enrollment.

But critics say the bill was drawn up before the war and does not go far enough to address manpower shortages as the army seeks to maintain its forces in the Gaza Strip and prepare for war with the Lebanese Hezbollah group. with Israel since the outbreak of war in Gaza last October.

With a high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest growing segment of the population, about 4% annually. Each year, approximately 13,000 ultra-Orthodox men turn 18, but fewer than 10% are registered, according to the State Control Committee of the Israeli Parliament.

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AP writer Isaac Scharf in Jerusalem contributed to this story.

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