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Middle East

Israel's Supreme Court orders military draft for ultra-Orthodox men, shaking Netanyahu's coalition

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  • Israel's Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that ultra-Orthodox men must be drafted into military service, ending decades of exemptions.
  • The decision poses a significant challenge to Prime Minister Netanyahu's coalition government, which relies on ultra-Orthodox party support.
  • Implementation of the ruling is expected to be gradual, with the IDF stating it can initially draft 3,000 Haredi men in the coming year.

In a groundbreaking decision that could reshape Israeli society and politics, the country's Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. This landmark ruling, issued on Tuesday, June 25, 2024, puts an end to decades of exemptions and ignites a fierce debate about equality, national service, and religious freedom in Israel.

The Ruling and Its Implications

The Supreme Court's decision strikes down the longstanding practice of exempting ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) men from mandatory military service. The court found that the current system of exemptions represents "invalid selective enforcement, which constitutes a serious breach of the rule of law". This ruling effectively means that, in the absence of specific legislation, Israel's compulsory military service law now applies to ultra-Orthodox men like any other Israeli citizen.

The decision comes at a critical time for Israel, as the country continues to wage war in Gaza and faces security challenges on multiple fronts. With over 600 soldiers reported killed since the conflict began in October 2023, the military has emphasized its need for additional manpower.

Historical Context and Societal Divide

The exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service has been a contentious issue in Israeli society for decades. Originally implemented in 1948 to protect religious scholarship after the Holocaust, the exemption has grown to encompass a significant portion of draft-age men. This has led to growing resentment among secular Israelis who view the practice as unfair and detrimental to national security.

The divide between secular and ultra-Orthodox communities has only widened during the current conflict. As the military calls up tens of thousands of reservists, the continued exemption of Haredi men has become increasingly difficult to justify.

Political Ramifications

The court's ruling poses a significant challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, which relies heavily on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties. These parties have long opposed any changes to the current exemption system and have threatened to leave the coalition if conscription is enforced.

If the ultra-Orthodox parties follow through on their threats, it could lead to the collapse of Netanyahu's government and potentially trigger new elections. This political instability comes at a time when the Prime Minister's approval ratings have already dropped significantly due to the ongoing conflict.

Implementation Challenges

While the court has mandated the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men, it has not specified how many should be conscripted or provided a detailed timeline for implementation. The ruling appears to allow for a gradual process, acknowledging the logistical challenges of integrating a large number of Haredi men into the military.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has stated that it would be able to draft 3,000 Haredi yeshiva students in the 2024 recruitment year. However, with an estimated 66,000 ultra-Orthodox men now eligible for conscription, the process of full integration is likely to take several years.

Economic and Social Implications

The court's ruling also has significant economic implications. In addition to mandating conscription, the decision upholds the suspension of subsidies for religious seminaries (yeshivas) whose students opt out of military service. This financial pressure could have far-reaching effects on the ultra-Orthodox community, which has historically relied heavily on government support.

The integration of ultra-Orthodox men into the military also raises questions about how to accommodate their religious practices and lifestyle within the framework of military service. This includes issues such as kosher food, prayer times, and interaction between male and female soldiers.

Public Reaction and Future Outlook

The ruling has been met with mixed reactions across Israeli society. Secular activists and organizations have hailed it as a victory for equality and shared national responsibility. The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which led the legal challenge, called on the government to implement the ruling "without delay".

However, ultra-Orthodox leaders have expressed disappointment and concern. Cabinet minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, who heads one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, called the ruling "very unfortunate and disappointing".

As Israel grapples with the implementation of this historic decision, the coming months are likely to see intense negotiations, potential legislative attempts to circumvent the ruling, and possibly significant political upheaval. The outcome of this process will have profound implications for Israeli society, politics, and national security for years to come.

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