Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews must be conscripted to army, court rules

Police grapple with an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man during protests in Israel on June 2
Ultra-orthodox Jews have long been exempt from serving in the Israeli army - Amir Levy/Getty Images Europe

Ultra-Orthodox Jews must be conscripted into the Israeli army, the supreme court has said, in a ruling that could fracture Benjamin Netanyahu’s Right-wing governing coalition.

All Israeli Jews, roughly 80 per cent of the population, must serve in the military. However, the ultra-orthodox have long been exempt.

Now the supreme court has ruled that the pressure for manpower due to the war in Gaza is so great that the exclusion must be scrapped. “At the height of a difficult war, the burden of inequality is more than ever acute,” the court’s unanimous ruling said.

The ruling does not say how many yeshiva students will be made to enlist but the High Court of Justice has said it will roll out conscription gradually. It will begin with 3,000 this year, in addition to those who have already signed up voluntarily.

All of the parties in the coalition favour the exemption, pinning Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, between their hard-Right religious position and a nation which has long cried out for reform.

Benjamin Netanyahu makes a speech during a state memorial ceremony in Tel Aviv on June 18
The ruling could shatter already fragile relations between Benjamin Netanyahu and more extreme elements of the government - SHAUL GOLAN/AFP

Already battling for political survival, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister now faces the tough job of justifying the rule change to the already volatile coalition. Religious members of Mr Netanyahu’s government reacted angrily to the news.

Aryeh Deri, controversial chairman of the Shas party, defended the importance of those who dedicate their lives to studying religious texts, calling them Israel’s “secret weapon”.

Meir Porush from United Torah Judaism also condemned the ruling, saying: “There is no power in the world that can force a person whose soul longs to study Torah to refrain from it.”

Yitzhak Goldknopf, the minister of construction and housing, from the Agudat Israel party, said the decision was “regrettable and disappointing”. “The State of Israel was established to be a home for the Jewish people, whose Torah is the bedrock of its existence,” he said.

Benny Gantz

However, Benny Gantz, the former defence minister who recently resigned from the war cabinet, has long been in favour of enlisting the ultra-Orthodox.

In a party statement earlier this month, he said: “While IDF soldiers are fighting for the country, [Netanyahu and the coalition] are fighting to perpetuate the [Haredi] exemption from serving. It is not too late to pass a broad and comprehensive outline that will satisfy the needs of security and society.”

Israel’s coalition government consists of six Right-wing, religious and nationalist parties: Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Religious Zionist Party, Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and Noam.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest in Jerusalem in May 2024
Ultra-Orthodox parties are crucial to Mr Netanyahu's political survival - Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu via Getty Images

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s controversial national security minister, once convicted on terror and incitement charges, leads the nationalist Jewish Power party, while Bezalel Smotrich, the nationalist finance minister who is campaigning to annex the West Bank, leads the Religious Zionist Party.

The ultra-orthodox community is Israel’s fastest-growing minority, boosted by heavy government funding. Tax exempt, they attend private schools and are financed in social and religious institutions. Their exemption from conscription angers those who send their sons and daughters to war.

Ilana Cohen, whose 20-year-old son has been in and out of Gaza since the ground invasion began, said: “The question is how this will be implemented in reality. Yes, the law is changing, but there are so far no clear guidelines for the IDF and no clear indications that it will truly be put into place.

“Why are their sons better than mine? How are their lives more precious than those of us sending our sons and daughters to war?”

Exempt since 1948

Seminary students have been exempt from service since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, while non-orthodox Jews are typically conscripted straight from school. Men are expected to serve for a minimum of 32 months and women for a minimum of 24 months.

“The only way to ensure they conscript is to stop funding them,” said Daniella Rivlin, whose son is a reserve soldier on Israel’s northern front.

“They have no incentive to serve and all the means to avoid conscription so we need much wider change,” she added, suggesting that so long as the religious schools, or yeshivas, are fully funded, she sees little hope of change.

Three hundred Israeli soldiers were killed on the morning of Oct 7 2023 when terror group Hamas invaded Israel, targeting multiple bases, and around 400 more have been killed since ground operations in Gaza began shortly afterwards.

Thousands of reservists have been called up to fight in the longest Gaza war since Hamas took control of the strip in 2007.

Hamas claims around 40,000 Palestinians have been killed in the onslaught while Israel says it has killed at least 15,000 Hamas fighters.