Government asks High Court to again delay mandatory conscription of ultra-Orthodox

Justice Ministry seeks deferral until May 20, arguing that ‘significant national-security events’ — Iran’s attack likely among them — preventing it from developing new policy

Ultra-Orthodox Jews arrive to the IDF Recruitment Center at Tel Hashomer, in central Israel, March 28, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews arrive to the IDF Recruitment Center at Tel Hashomer, in central Israel, March 28, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The government sought another deferral on Thursday of a looming High Court-enforced deadline for it to come up with a new military conscription plan that would address wholesale exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews that have been deemed illegal by the court.

The court, hearing appeals that described the decades-old waiver as discriminatory, had given March 31 as the original deadline. That was extended to April 30 at the request of the government, which argued that it was busy waging the war on Hamas.

In a new request, the Justice Ministry asked for a deferral to May 20, citing a lag in appointing a government lawyer and “significant national-security events” of recent days, which, it said, had halted government work on a conscription blueprint.

That appeared to refer to an unprecedented Iranian drone and missile salvo against Israel on April 13-14, a surge in fighting on the Lebanese front, and preparations to invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah as part of the offensive to crush Hamas.

There was no immediate response from the court.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Baharav-Miara informed the government there is no legal basis to continue exempting Haredi men from conscription in light of the High Court ruling on the matter.

Ultra-Orthodox Jew walking past a poster against the recruitment of Haredim to the military. It reads: “Don’t touch the Yeshivas,” in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, in Jerusalem, April 9, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Most Jewish Israeli men are required to serve nearly three years followed by years of annual reserve duty, while many Israeli women serve two years. Arab Israelis are not required to serve, though some volunteer.

But the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox, also called Haredim, who make up roughly 13 percent of Israeli society, have since the foundation of the state received exemptions if they are studying full-time in a yeshiva, or religious seminary.

The exemptions — and the government stipends many yeshiva students receive through age 26 — have infuriated the wider general public.

That frustration peaked in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught – which saw nearly 1,200 people killed and 253 kidnapped – and amid the war that ensued, with the military death toll mounting, soldiers being asked to serve longer due to a manpower shortage, and with the threats facing Israel growing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition includes two ultra-Orthodox parties that regard the exemptions as key to keeping their constituents in religious seminaries and away from a melting-pot military that might test their conservative customs.

The ultra-Orthodox are expected to total 19% of Israel’s population by 2035 due to their high birth rates. Economists argue that the conscription waiver keeps some of the community unnecessarily out of the workforce, spelling a growing burden for middle-class taxpayers.

The extension request was scorned by opposition leader Yair Lapid, who accused the “reckless” government of trying to deceive the country with excuses.

“If we don’t enlist together, they should not be spreading slogans about how we will be victorious together,” he said in a post on X.

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