Ruling indicates draft can be gradual, but must start now

In historic ruling, High Court says government must draft Haredi men into IDF

Unanimous decision also says state is barred from financially supporting yeshivas whose students are eligible for the draft, noting, ‘Burden of inequality is more acute than ever’

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

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men near a sign reading 'army recruitment office' during a protest against the drafting of Haredim to the military, in Jerusalem, May 1, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men near a sign reading 'army recruitment office' during a protest against the drafting of Haredim to the military, in Jerusalem, May 1, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a landmark ruling on Tuesday, the High Court of Justice ruled unanimously that the government must draft ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into the military since there is no longer any legal framework to continue the decades-long practice of granting them blanket exemptions from army service.

The court ruled that a government decision from June 2023 instructing the army not to begin drafting eligible Haredi men — issued after the law allowing for blanket military service exemptions expired — was illegal, and that the government must therefore actively work to conscript ultra-Orthodox recruits to the IDF.

The justices made clear that they were not telling the state how many Haredi yeshiva students to draft how quickly, and indicated that the process could be gradual, but they warned the government that it must begin now.

The court ruling also permanently barred the state from funding ultra-Orthodox yeshivas for students who are studying in them in lieu of military service, asserting that those funds were bound up in the terms of the IDF service exemptions which now no longer exist.

The High Court’s decision means that after decades of political and societal controversy and strife over the issue, there is now a legal obligation for young Haredi men to join their Jewish Israeli comrades and serve in the military.

This new reality has come about largely due to the confluence of two major events — the expiration of the original law allowing for blanket service exemptions, and the cataclysmic October 7 Hamas attack and its aftermath, which threw into sharp relief the IDF’s need for more manpower.

The High Court holds a hearing over the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Although the government could in theory re-legislate the blanket exemptions, doing so would be politically difficult since several Likud MKs have already said they will not vote for them and since the country is engaged in active fighting on numerous fronts.

The ruling was made by all nine justices presiding over the case, including two hardline conservatives, Noam Sohlberg and David Mintz, both of whom are religiously observant, as well as Yael Wilner, a more moderate conservative who is also observant.

Noting the massive number of young Haredi men until now exempt from military service, some 63,000, the court wrote, “Non-enforcement of the provisions of the Security Service Law creates severe discrimination between those who are required to serve” and those who being exempted from army service.

“In these days, in the midst of a severe war, the burden of inequality is more acute than ever — and requires the promotion of a sustainable solution to this issue,” the court declared.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and youth raise placards during a protest against Israeli army conscription outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem on April 11, 2024. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

No legal basis for exemptions

In June 2023, the clauses in the Law for Security Service allowing for blanket military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students expired, meaning that the IDF was entitled to conscript anyone eligible for military service, including the ultra-Orthodox.

But the government passed a cabinet resolution immediately before the exemptions clause expired, telling the IDF not to begin drafting such men for another 10 months while it formulated and passed a new law reinstating the exemptions.

The October 7 invasion, and the subsequent wars with Hamas and Hezbollah, meant that the government did not get around to passing that law. Legal campaign groups filed petitions against the government even before the outbreak of war, demanding immediate Haredi conscription.

In its decision, the High Court stated that the June 2023 resolution delaying the draft of Haredi yeshiva students had exceeded the government’s authority and was unlawful.

“We determine that there is no legal basis for avoiding the recruitment of yeshiva students at this time; that the state must act to enforce the Law for Security Service on yeshiva students; that there is no legal authority to continue transferring the [financial] support for these students; and that government resolution 1724 was issued without authority and is void,” the court ruled.

As such, it stated explicitly in its ruling that the state is obligated to draft ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, writing that the government must “act to enforce the Law for Military Service on yeshiva students” now that there is no longer a legal framework to exempt them from mandatory conscription, meaning that state agencies must take active steps to draft such men into IDF service.

But although the court insisted that the state must begin drafting Haredi yeshiva students, it indicated that this process can be gradual, as long as it begins immediately.

It said expressly that the current case was not the appropriate framework in which to discuss “the scale of enlistment for yeshiva students,” and that it was not issuing an opinion on that issue, implying that the government had some leeway in how many haredi men it needs to draft on an immediate basis.

“It should be understood that even when exercising this authority for formulating a program for the gradual conscription of yeshiva students, the military authorities are obligated to act in accordance with the principles of administrative law,” the court noted, however.

Brothers in Arms activists protest outside a High Court hearing over the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

It pointed out that the IDF has itself stated in the framework of the court proceedings that it would be able to draft 3,000 Haredi yeshiva students in the 2024 enlistment year, which began in June 2024, in addition to the average of 1,800 such men who have enlisted per year, in recent years.

This part of the court’s ruling therefore appears to accept the need for a gradual increase in ultra-Orthodox enlistment owing to the huge number of men from the community now eligible for the draft and the logistical difficulties of accommodating their religious lifestyle.

The court noted the government’s argument that enforcing conscription on ultra-Orthodox men would constitute selective enforcement if it did not also require conscription for Arab citizens, but said that the current petition which it was addressing had not raised the question of Arab conscription.

Petitioners claim historic victory

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, whose petition led to Monday’s High Court ruling, claimed that the decision meant the government must begin immediately drafting all 63,000 ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students eligible for military service.

“This is a historic victory for the rule of law and the principle of equality in the burden of military service,” said the organization.

Movement for Quality of Government in Israel chairman Eliad Shraga at a High Court hearing on the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

“We call on the government and the defense minister to implement the decision without delay, to comply with the High Court’s order, and to work immediately to draft [ultra-Orthodox] yeshiva students,” the organization said in a statement.

MQG subsequently sent a letter to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara demanding that they begin drafting all eligible Haredi men and insisting that Baharav-Miara’s position of beginning with just 3,000 Haredi recruits should not be adopted.

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