Israel crisis deepens over ultra-Orthodox draft

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An ultra-Orthodox man walks past Israel soldiers (March 2024)Image source, Raffi Berg

Israel’s High Court has issued an order in the long-running dispute over ultra-Orthodox military exemptions, deepening a crisis in the government.

It instructed a funding freeze for ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, educational institutions whose students are eligible for conscription.

Haredi parties in the government have reacted angrily, while a secular party has threatened to quit over the issue.

Ultra-Orthodox exemptions are opposed by a majority of Israelis.

The Haredi community comprises about 12% of the population but those in full-time Torah study are exempt from mandatory military service.

Conscription applies to almost all other Israelis, apart from Israeli Arabs, from the age of 18 for both men and women.

The government is debating a bill which reportedly seeks to strike a compromise by allowing exemptions with limitations.

But the draft plan is fiercely opposed by Haredi parties. Two of those parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) – hold 18 seats in the 72-seat emergency government.

On the other hand, the secular, centrist National Union party, which holds eight seats, is insisting exemptions are scrapped altogether.

The party’s leader, Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff, has threatened to pull out of the government over the current plan.

“The people will not tolerate it, the Knesset will not be able to vote in favour of it, and my associates and I cannot be part of this emergency government if this law passes,” he said on Monday.

While some ultra-Orthodox Jews of army service age serve in the IDF, the vast majority do not, devoting their lives to Torah study in the religious institutions, or yeshivot.

The High Court ruled that funds to yeshivot whose students qualify for conscription since 1 July 2023 when a previous law on deferrals expired but who have not yet enlisted, will be frozen. It is reported to affect about 50,000 yeshiva students.

The ruling is due to come into effect on 1 April, a day after a deadline for the government to draft a new law expires.

The head of UTJ, Yitzhak Goldknopf, called the ruling “a stain and a disgrace”.

Critics object to the exemption, arguing that all Jewish Israelis should serve without exception. The issue has intensified since the start of the war in Gaza on 7 October, in which 254 soldiers have been killed.

A former adviser to Shas leader Ariyeh Deri, Barak Seri, told Israel public radio that “from the moment that the court ruled, the Haredi parties have been in utter shock”.

“They were stunned by the ruling that funding will stop this Monday. The accusations are flying in all directions, at the Likud [party which leads the government], at [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, at the fully right-wing government, at their representatives… This is the worst situation the Haredim have ever been in.”

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