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Israeli high court rules ultra-Orthodox men must serve in the military

Ruling is a major blow to Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes two Haredi parties that oppose conscription
Israeli forces operate as ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest after Israel's Supreme Court convened to discuss petitions on exemptions from military conscription in Jerusalem, 2 June 2024 (Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)
An Israeli mounted policeman scatters ultra-Orthodox Jewish men at a protest after Israel's Supreme Court convened to discuss exemptions from military conscription in Jerusalem, 2 June 2024 (Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)

The Israeli high court ruled on Tuesday that ultra-Orthodox men previously exempt from military services must be drafted, in a major blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. 

The decree also states that ultra-Orthodox men studying in religious seminaries, known as yeshivas, can no longer receive government funding if they refuse to serve without being formally exempt. 

The military draft exemption of ultra-Orthodox men, ongoing for decades, has polarised Israelis since the early days of the state.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community, otherwise known as the Haredim, strongly oppose service in the military, while secular and non-Orthodox Jews say the exemption violates the principle of equality.

The debate over the exemptions grew in recent months amid the Israeli wars in Gaza and Lebanon, which increased the need for additional soldiers. 

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"At the height of a difficult war, the burden of inequality is more than ever acute," the court's ruling, unanimously approved by all nine justices, said.

Two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, United Torah Judaism and Shas, denounced the ruling. 

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“There is no power in the world that can cut off the people of Israel from studying the Torah and anyone who has tried this in the past has failed miserably,” said Aryeh Deri, head of Shas party and a close ally of Netanyahu.

“No high-handed ruling will abolish the community of scholars in the land of Israel, which is the branch on which we all sit.” 

Echoing this criticism, United Torah Judaism said there was no legal basis for the ruling. 

Party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf said it was “expected and very unfortunate”.

Opposition parties on the left and right hailed the decision. 

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which led the petition at the court, urged Defence Minister Yoav Gallant to immediately draft ultra-Orthodox men.

"The high court's decision is a historic triumph for the rule of law and the principle of equal military service burden," it said in a statement.

"The ruling affirms our position that the ongoing discrimination in army conscription cannot continue and that the time has come for equality."

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