JERUSALEM — Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down the current government arrangement allowing for mass exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory military service, calling it discriminatory and unconstitutional. The ruling redraws the battle lines over an issue that has long roiled Israeli society.
The impassioned debate over military exemptions for strictly Orthodox Jews engaged in full-time Torah study goes to the heart of the struggle for the future character of Israel.
In a country where most Jewish men and women are conscripted at 18, and where the military is hallowed as a social equalizer and a people’s army protecting Israel from threats on its borders, past attempts to reduce the scope of exemptions and create a more equitable sharing of the national burden only seem to have underscored deep social divisions.
“The history of this societal controversy reflects the history of the State of Israel itself,” wrote the departing president of the Supreme Court, Justice Miriam Naor, in the 148-page ruling, noting that the court had already ruled on the issue several times before.
The court gave the government a year to come up with alternative legislation that would satisfy the basic principle of equality. This latest ruling came in response to a petition by several nongovernmental pressure groups and Yesh Atid, a centrist party led by Yair Lapid, who has championed the cause of equal service in recent years both in the government and now in the opposition.
The court decision was reached by eight members of a nine-judge panel sitting as the High Court of Justice, with one member dissenting. It presents a new challenge for the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already beleaguered by corruption investigations and reliant on the support of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
Ultra-Orthodox politicians strongly denounced the ruling and vowed to fight it, but given the yearlong time frame for amending the law, the stability of the governing coalition did not appear to be in imminent danger.
“Those same Torah sons who chose to dedicate their lives to Torah study will continue to study Torah here in the land of Israel, the holy land,” said Aryeh Deri, the interior minister and the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, in remarks after the ruling. “No force in the world will stop them,” he said, adding that the court has proved itself “totally disconnected from our heritage and tradition and from our people.”
Mr. Lapid of Yesh Atid (Hebrew for There Is a Future), speaking after the decision was announced, said: “Today we started to turn the ship toward sanity and values. That’s why we are in politics.”
Mr. Netanyahu, he added, could not continue to wriggle out of making a decision. The draft, he said, is “for everyone, not just for suckers who don’t have a party in the coalition. We’re done being suckers. The court decided that we will not have first- and second-class citizens in Israel.”
The policy of open-ended deferment dates to 1949 when Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempted 400 religious students from military service in an effort to restore the tradition of yeshiva scholarship, which had been nearly destroyed during the Holocaust. The issue has since become tendentious, with the number of those who have been exempted by now amounting to tens of thousands.
Those who support wholesale deferment and exemption for Torah students in seminaries argue that Israel needs spiritual preservation as much as physical protection. Critics protest that the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority, known in Hebrew as Haredim, or those in awe of God, are not contributing enough to the country’s economy or security, leaving others to bear an unfair burden.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector makes up about 10 percent of the population of more than 8.5 million but it is rapidly increasing, with its members typically marrying young and having large families. Worry and anger has been growing among many Israelis who fear that the economy will become unsustainable in the coming decades without radical change, in part because many ultra-Orthodox men prefer full time Torah study over work and rely on government stipends.
With the ultra-Orthodox parties often serving as coalition kingmakers and serving in most of the governments for more than three decades, they have accrued what many see as disproportionate power, privileges and subsidies.
Far from homogeneous, the Haredi world is made up of different rabbinical courts, and a small but growing number of strictly religious Jews have already been opting for military service or civilian national service as a way of acquiring skills and a path out of poverty and toward integration into the work force. The army has tried to accommodate Haredi recruits. It has even established ultra-Orthodox battalions, allowing those soldiers to combine military service with religious life.
But the more hard-core rabbis, who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah, have resisted change. Ultra-Orthodox soldiers have been harassed and abused in their neighborhoods and stormy street protests have erupted in cases where members of the community who did not qualify for an army exemption, perhaps because they were found to be not properly engaged in yeshiva study, have been detained for draft dodging. Religious women are exempted from army service because they adhere to strict rules of modesty. Israel’s Arab minority is also largely exempted.
Tuesday’s ruling was just the latest twist in a long political and legal saga. In 2012, the Supreme Court invalidated a law that had been in force for a decade regulating the exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews. The law was supposed to encourage ultra-Orthodox enlistment without coercion, but it failed to achieve results and the court deemed it unconstitutional.
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