Ultra-Orthodox must serve in Israeli military: court

Israel's Supreme Court has ruled the state must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary into the military, a decree with the potential to divide Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition.

Netanyahu's government relies on two ultra-Orthodox parties that regard conscription exemptions as key to keeping their constituents in religious seminaries and away from a melting-pot military that might test their conservative customs.

Leaders of those parties said they were disappointed with the ruling but issued no immediate threat to the government.

However, the prospect of the military, backed by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, starting to draft the seminary students could widen cracks in Netanyahu's increasingly brittle coalition.

The ultra-Orthodox conscription waiver has become especially charged as Israel's armed forces are overstretched by a multi-front war with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
The ruling could widen cracks in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's increasingly brittle coalition. (AP PHOTO)

"At the height of a difficult war, the burden of inequality is more than ever acute," said the court's unanimous ruling, which was handed down on Tuesday.

Most Jewish Israelis are bound by law to serve in the military from the age of 18, for three years for men and two years for women.

Members of Israel's 21 per cent Arab minority are exempt, though some do serve, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students have also been largely exempt for decades.

The law governing the exemption for seminary students expired in 2023, but the government continued to allow them not to serve.

The Supreme Court ruled that in the absence of a new legal basis for the exemption, the state must draft them.

The ruling also barred seminaries from receiving state subsidies if scholars avoid service without deferrals or exemptions.

With a new law on the issue now being discussed in parliament, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, of Netanyahu's Likud Party, voiced hope agreement could be reached on a compromise.

Israeli opposition MP Avigdor Lieberman
"There's nothing Jewish about dodging military service," opposition MP Avigdor Lieberman said. (AP PHOTO)

"Not in a civil war, not in a fight that will tear apart Israeli society in the middle of a tough war. It's possible to do it together," Kisch said.

While the military has said it is in dire need of more conscripts, ultra-Orthodox leaders see the exemptions as existential for preserving their traditions.

"There's no judge there who understands the value of Torah study and its contribution to the people of Israel throughout the generations," said ultra-Orthodox MP Moshe Gafni, referring to study of Judaism's holy books.

Opposition parties welcomed the ruling.

"There's nothing Jewish about dodging military service," opposition MP and former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman said.

For more than six years, the state had been asking the Supreme Court for more time to pass a new conscription law to resolve the issue.

The new draft bill being hammered out in parliament could resolve the crisis if wide agreement is reached.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men block protest in Jerusalem
Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators have blocked roads in their protests against conscription. (AP PHOTO)

Otherwise, it could have the potential to bring Netanyahu's government down.

Gallant, who has towed an independent line against Netanyahu on more than one occasion, wants a more equal sharing of the burden, a sentiment shared by several other MPs in Netanyahu's Likud party and among most of the opposition.

The longstanding military waiver for the ultra-Orthodox has sparked protests in recent months by Israelis angry that they are shouldering the risk of fighting the war in Gaza.

In city streets, ultra-Orthodox demonstrators have blocked roads under the banner "death before conscription".

The ultra-Orthodox make up 13 per cent of Israel's 10 million population, a figure expected to reach 19 per cent by 2035 due to their high birth rates.

The conscription waiver keeps some of the community in seminaries and out of the workforce, hindering economic growth and placing a welfare burden on middle-class taxpayers.

Israel's 21 per cent Arab minority are also mostly exempted from the draft.