Record 66,000 ultra-Orthodox men were exempted in past year

AG says Haredim face military draft if no legislation by April, seeks deadline extension

Responding to petitions, Baharav-Miara’s office tells top court more time needed to solve community’s army service conundrum; Smotrich: ‘Situation is outrageous, cannot continue’

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Students at the Mir Yeshiva in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim listen to a lesson by Rabbi Dov Landau, head of the Slabodka yeshiva in Bnei Brak, September 19, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Illustrative: Students at the Mir Yeshiva in the ultra orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim listen to a lesson by Rabbi Dov Landau, head of the Slabodka yeshiva in Bnei Brak, September 19, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

The Attorney General’s Office told the High Court of Justice Wednesday that the government was engaged in “intensive” efforts to formulate new legislation to regulate exemptions from military service for ultra-Orthodox men, and asked the court for a further extension to a rapidly approaching March 31 deadline to pass such a law.

Responding to petitions against the current arrangement on Wednesday, Gali Baharav-Miara’s office pointed out that without an extension to a government resolution from June 2023 — which temporarily permitted the government to not draft ultra-Orthodox men while a solution was formulated — the state will not be legally entitled to continue exempting the group from military conscription and will need to start enlisting them on April 1.

In 2017 the High Court struck down legislation allowing the blanket exemption of Haredi men from military service as discriminatory, and gave the government one year to pass new legislation that would boost levels of ultra-Orthodox military enlistment. Due to numerous elections that occurred in the interim, it has since given the state multiple extensions to that deadline.

Since the law that the High Court struck down could not itself be extended beyond June 2023, the current cabinet passed a government resolution that month to legally enable the military not to draft Haredi men until the end of March 2024, in order to give the government time to formulate a new arrangement for ultra-Orthodox military exemptions that would comply with the High Court’s 2017 ruling.

But the war in Gaza and the massive call-ups by the military put off any such legislation, with public appetite for prolonging the current state of affairs at a nadir, and amid growing calls for young Haredim to share the burden of service to the country with the rest of the public.

The IDF’s Personnel Directorate told a Knesset committee earlier Wednesday that some 66,000 young men from the ultra-Orthodox community received an exemption from military service over the past year, reportedly an all-time record. Some 540 of them decided to enlist since the war started, the IDF said.

The response filed on Wednesday to the court, drafted by the State Attorney’s Office and filed by the Attorney General’s Office, stated that the outbreak of war after October 7 had made it impossible for the government to formulate an agreement within the coalition on the highly delicate issue and pass the necessary legislation before the March 31 deadline.

Since meeting the deadline is now impossible, the state asked the court to allow it to merely update the court by the end of March on its efforts to draw up a suitable legislative framework for increasing ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

IDF soldiers fighting in the Gaza Strip in a photo released by the IDF on Feb. 9, 2024. (IDF Spokesperson)

The Attorney General’s Office said that by March 24 the government should have details on emerging legislation to tackle the issue, and will then request another extension for the Knesset to pass a new law by June 30.

“Even though a legislative arrangement regarding yeshiva students and graduates of ultra-Orthodox educational institutions has yet to be formulated, there is currently an intensive dialogue between all the relevant parties, in an attempt to reach a possible outline,” the response said.

“However, at this time there is still no actual outline that can be announced, and according to what was communicated by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry in the state’s announcement on February 15, 2024, this is a uniquely sensitive and complex issue like no other, particularly in the midst of a war and during the term of a national emergency government,” the state continued.

“If the expiration date of the [June 2023] government resolution is not extended by a new decision that will set down a timetable for completing primary legislation by June 30, 2024, there will be no source of legal authority that allows blanket avoidance of the procedures for recruiting [Haredi] yeshiva students,” the state added.

Ultra-Orthodox men of military age have been able to avoid the military draft for decades by enrolling for study in yeshivas and repeatedly obtaining one-year military service deferrals provided for Haredi yeshiva students until they reach the age of military exemption — an arrangement legislated on several occasions by different governments up until it was struck down for the third time by the High Court in 2017.

The court has, however, been generous with the extensions it has granted the state, in light of the potentially explosive societal situation in which tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox young men would face imprisonment if they refused to enlist, should the extensions to the deferral arrangement not be extended.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni delivers a speech in the Knesset plenum during the budget debate, May 23, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Haredi religious leadership is fiercely opposed to young men enlisting in the army, arguing that their religious studies are more important. Fear of young men losing their ultra-Orthodox identity during military service is also a key factor in the opposition of Haredi rabbis to enlistment, and has led Haredi political parties to apply heavy pressure on numerous governments to perpetuate the blanket exemptions.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, one of the primary petitioners in the case, condemned the Attorney General’s Office for its response, saying the state was “once again trying to roll away this hot potato, which has been rolling around for 25 years, instead of deciding once and for all that there should be one conscription for everyone and one equal law for everyone, and not to try and find various illegal solutions that discriminate between different types of people and different types of blood.”

The organization went on: “It is very sad that the attorney general, instead of understanding that something illegal has been done here… is allowing the illegal situation to continue… and is basically defending an illegal situation before the court.”

Also Wednesday, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich jouned the growing calls for the ultra-Orthodox community to do more to share the burden of military service, saying “the current situation is outrageous and cannot continue.”

“The current reality in which [Haredim] do not serve in the army cannot continue. I think that is also clear to them,” he said in public comments during a visit to a yeshiva for national religious students.

The far-right minister, who only served in the army for 14 months after deferring enlistment to age 28 to study in yeshiva and get a law degree, argued that service in the IDF “comes first and foremost from a place of mutual responsibility, of being part of the wonderful processes of revival and rebirth in which our generation is fortunate to take part.”

Minister of Finance and Head of the Religious Zionism Party Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We’re talking about sharing in the burden. It’s a great privilege to take part in this mitzvah,” he continued. “The Israeli society’s claim against the community is just.”

Smotrich clarified that the effort to enlist Haredim should be done respectfully “with a lot of love and dialogue.”

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