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Israeli Supreme Court rules that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man wears handcuffs as he sits on a street during a protest against army recruitment in Jerusalem on June 2.
Leo Correa
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man wears handcuffs as he sits on a street during a protest against army recruitment in Jerusalem on June 2.

Updated June 25, 2024 at 11:54 AM ET

In a landmark ruling that threatens to unravel Israel's government, the country's Supreme Court has ordered the military to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men, who've long been exempt from service.

Tuesday's decision was unanimous, and comes amid intensified public opposition to the policy following the Hamas-led attack on Israel last year, and the months-long war in Gaza that has strained the military's resources.

For years, Israel's Supreme Court has held that the religious exemption violated laws on equal protection. In its new ruling, the court said the state was carrying out “invalid selective enforcement, which represents a serious violation of the rule of law."

The court also kept in place a freeze on subsidizes for religious seminaries, or yeshivas, whose young students declined to enlist, a measure it first imposed in March.

Before Tuesday's ruling, the Israeli government had repeatedly extended the waiver, but it has been unable to pass a law that would make it permanent, or allow for a more limited draft of ultra-Orthodox men. During recent court arguments, the AP reported, government lawyers said forcing them to enlist would “tear Israeli society apart.”

With conscription of the ultra-Orthodox now set to start, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now faces the prospect of eroding support within what was already a fragile coalition keeping him in power. Two politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties are key to Netanyahu’s governing coalition and staunchly oppose drafting their constituents. If they left the coalition, it could cause Netanyahu's government to collapse and trigger new elections.

The exemption came to be seen as unsustainable

The ultra-Orthodox military exemption goes back to Israel's 1948 founding in the wake of the Holocaust, when protecting the remnant of religious scholars was considered key for a Jewish state. At first, it only applied to some 400 people from Orthodox, or Haredi, families.

But in Israel, where military service is otherwise mandatory, Haredi families have on average six or seven children, a birth rate that makes them the fastest growing segment of the country's population. They now make up about a quarter of enlistment age men, according to Yonahan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.

"There are huge implications on Israeli democracy, in multiple dimensions," he says.

For one thing, to get out of military service you can't hold a job. That's seen as a drag on the economy and a growing financial burden for the rest of the nation. What's more, Haredi political power has grown along with its population, and has been crucial to Netanyahu's coalition.

"[Netanyahu's] entire political career, there was a sort of over-arching directive: Preserve the alliance with the ultra-Orthodox at all costs, because this alliance preserves his grip over power," says Plesner.

For ultra-Orthodox leaders the fight is existential. The word Haredi means one who trembles before God. They reject engagement with the modern world, and fear that exposing young men to it through the military will end their way of life.

The Hamas attack and Israel's response intensified opposition

Since the surprise Hamas assault Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people in Israel, the country has been fighting on three fronts: A punishing military campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 37,600 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health; stepped up battles in the West Bank and mutual attacks along its northern border with the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah. To support all this, the Israeli military has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists, drafted others early and pushed for longer rotations.

"The people that are serving will now have to do twice or three times more. That's crazy. It will not happen," says Ron Scherf, co-founder of Brothers and Sisters in Arms. Since the start of the war in Gaza, the group of reservists has held regular protests calling for an end to the broad ultra-Orthodox exemption. Polls have showed overwhelming supportfor the group's position, with upwards of 70% of Jewish respondents in Israel saying that changes to the exemption were needed.

"A minister in the government who is willing to send my son to his death, and his son doing nothing," Scherf says. "Who can understand that?"

Scherf's group has pushed for three demands: Everyone must enlist; waivers should apply to everyone; and both rules must be enforced.

One challenge: the stigma that ultra-Orthodox soldiers face

A couple thousand ultra-Orthodox people did voluntarily sign up for military service after the Hamas attack. They included Mordechai Porat, a 36-year-old social worker in Bnei Brak, a center of ultra-Orthodox life.

"I felt like a lion in a cage. I had to do something," he says.

Porat has spent months providing therapy at a nearby military base. But he never wears his green army fatigues in the city and keeps his military dog tag hidden under his shirt. Even with this low profile, he says he's paid a price.

"My [kindergarten age] son has still not been accepted into the community school," Porat said in a March interview.

For other ultra-Orthodox, the social cost of joining the Israeli military can be even steeper.

"Going to the army will damage their ability to marry," says Nechumi Yaffe of Tel Aviv University, who is ultra-Orthodox herself. "It will damage their relationship in the family."

She believes it will be good for the community to "normalize" as more people are drafted. But she thinks Israelis don't understand how challenging that process may be for young men who've been socially isolated, with little to no education on human rights.

"I think the Israeli society should ask itself, actually, do you want to see them in the army?" she says. "You know, [Israelis] want to see blood. They want to see them in uniform, shooting. I don't think it's a great idea."

Yaffe believes it would make more sense to phase them in, starting some off as truck drivers or cooks, while they adapt to a secular world.

Porat, who joined voluntarily, thinks most Haredim will choose jail time over enlisting. But after the Hamas attacks, polls did show more community support for soldiers, and Porat thinks more will be open to the idea over time. Still, he cautions that a slow approach is best.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jennifer Ludden
NPR National Correspondent Jennifer Ludden covers economic inequality, exploring systemic disparities in housing, food insecurity and wealth. She seeks to explain the growing gap between socio-economic groups, and government policies to try and change it.