‘A crying need for more soldiers’: Justices lose patience with Haredi draft evasion

High Court judges deride arguments by government and yeshivas that IDF cannot be instructed to conscript ultra-Orthodox men, insist military urgently needs manpower due to war

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

A nine-justice panel hears petitions demanding the immediate conscription of ultra-Orthodox young men to the Israel Defense Forces at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem, June 2, 2024. (Amit Shabi / pool)
A nine-justice panel hears petitions demanding the immediate conscription of ultra-Orthodox young men to the Israel Defense Forces at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem, June 2, 2024. (Amit Shabi / pool)

A panel of nine High Court justices was sharply and unambiguously critical of the government’s claims that ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students should not be drafted into the army, during a high-stakes hearing Sunday on petitions demanding the immediate conscription of thousands of such men into military service and the cessation of state funding for the yeshivas where they study.

The nine justices presiding over the hearing, including conservatives, expressed intense skepticism — bordering at times on anger — toward the claims and remarks of the legal representatives of the government and the state-funded Haredi yeshivas, accusing them of “word games” and “going round in circles,” and even appearing to mock their arguments.

By contrast, the justices for the most part did not challenge the substance of the claims made by lawyers of the petitioning organizations and the Attorney General’s Office, which opposes the government position, as they argued that some 63,000 young ultra-Orthodox men who now have no legal framework exempting them from military service should be conscripted.

They did, however, question the practicality of drafting such a vast number of new recruits, while noting the precedent set by court rulings of postponing by several months the cessation of financial support for Haredi yeshiva students, as the petitions demand.

The sharp and at times caustic responses of the justices to the government’s arguments appeared to suggest the court’s patience with the decades-long failure of successive governments to deal with the Haredi enlistment conundrum has finally run out.

Hardline conservative Justice Noam Sohlberg appeared to be furious even with the attorney general’s position that only 3,000 ultra-Orthodox soldiers should be drafted in the coming year, insisting that there was an “existential need” for manpower in the military, and declaring, “We are at war. There’s a crying need [for more soldiers], the flood is now,” among other such outbursts.

Sohlberg noted that even in 2017 there was a declared capacity by the IDF to accept 3,000 ultra-Orthodox soldiers. “Now at a time of war, the army can’t absorb 3,000 soldiers?” Sohlberg asked Taubman.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, June 2, 2024, during a hearing on Haredi enlistment in the IDF. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Similarly, his fellow conservative justice, Yael Wilner, repeatedly dismissed the government attorney’s convoluted arguments against enforcing an immediate draft, saying the law as it stands must be obeyed.

Given the short shrift that the justices gave to the government position, representatives for the petitioning organizations expressed confidence that the court will side with them and rule that the state must begin to draft at least 3,000 Haredi yeshiva students.

The petitions were filed by the Movement for Quality Government, Brothers in Arms, and other groups following the expiration last June of the highly controversial law which allowed for blanket military service exemptions for Haredi yeshiva students. At the end of March, a government resolution lapsed that instructed the IDF not to draft such men until new legislation is passed.

The government failed to pass such legislation, leading to a legal reality not seen since 2002 in which Israel has no legal framework for mass Haredi exemptions from military service nor a framework to fund the yeshivas where they study in lieu of serving.

The government’s private attorney Doron Taubman (center) arrives for a court hearing on petitions demanding the drafting of Haredi men to the IDF, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on June 2, 2024. (Amit Shabi/POOL)

Attorney Doron Taubman, the private counsel hired by the government, centered his arguments on the contention that the government does not and should not intervene in the discretion of authorized officials to exercise their authority, in this case the relevant IDF commanders involved in issuing conscription orders.

Taubman claimed the army would need to conduct extensive preparations to increase its capacity to enlist large numbers of ultra-Orthodox soldiers due to the unique demands of their religious lifestyle.

Justice Alex Stein challenged this notion, pointing to the government resolution instructing the IDF and Defense Ministry not to enforce conscription against Haredi yeshiva students while new legislation is worked out.

And acting Supreme Court President Uzi Vogelman insisted that the discretion of those agencies would anyway need to take into account High Court rulings, including a 2017 decision determining that mass exemptions to military service on a group basis are illegal and discriminatory.

Illustrative: Haredi students study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva, in Jerusalem, August 22, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/ Flash90)

Wilner, one of the conservative justices, then pressed Taubman further, demanding to know if the government would support the limited conscription of just 3,000 of the 63,000 ultra-Orthodox men who are now legally obligated to enlist, as the attorney general has proposed to gradually increase Haredi enlistment.

“We have not, in principle, addressed the conscription of 3,000,” responded Taubman evasively, asserting that the government supports increased Haredi enlistment but that it would not interfere with the army’s discretion over who should be drafted and that neither should the court, Taubman claimed “25,000 or 250,000” men could be drafted if that was the military’s decision.

“Now you’re joining the position of both the attorney general and the petitioners,” quipped Vogelman jovially, drawing laughter from the observers in the courtroom.

Following further evasions from Taubman, Justice Isaac Amit laughed out loud almost derisively, dismissing the government attorney’s claims about the discretion as “word games” designed to circumvent a 1998 High Court ruling that mass military service exemptions could only be formulated through Knesset legislation and not by administrative decisions.

The justices then took Taubman to task for the government’s position that despite the absence of a legal framework for Haredi yeshiva students to defer military services, the yeshivas where they study instead of serving could still receive government funding for them.

The attorney general herself has opposed this position, writing that these funds can only be given as long as the student has a formal service deferral.

“The condition for the financial support is that you do not evade the draft,” said Justice Ofer Grosskopf. “If you don’t turn up to the IDF drafting office when ordered, then I would say funds cannot be paid for him.”

In one highly charged moment, Taubman argued that this would have a severe impact on the livelihood of ultra-Orthodox families who depend on the government stipends to guarantee a minimal household income, saying it was a “matter of life and death for tens of thousands of married yeshiva students.”

Justice Daphne Barak Erez retorted angrily: “It’s a matter of life and death not just for tens of thousands of married yeshiva students, but for many other people in the country,” she said, in reference to the hundreds of soldiers killed in the ongoing war triggered by Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught.

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