In ‘historic’ step, High Court orders halt to yeshiva funds for students eligible for draft

Attorney General tells court army will be obligated to begin drafting Haredi men on April 1; judges shoot down PM’s request for 30 more days to settle matter

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

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

In a step that could have deep political and societal ramifications, the High Court of Justice issued an interim order Thursday evening barring the government from providing funds to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas for students eligible for IDF enlistment — as the legal framework for deferring their military service will no longer exist.

A government resolution from June 2023 instructing the IDF to temporarily not draft Haredi students despite the expiration of a law governing the matter will itself expire at midnight on March 31.

The court decision, which goes into effect April 1, comes after the government delayed for days the submission of a proposal to the court for plans to increase ultra-Orthodox military enlistment, and constitutes a sharp indication from the judges that their patience with repeated attempts to put off decisions on the matter is finally running out.

The political battle over enlistment has thrown Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition into disarray, with National Unity’s Benny Gantz threatening to bolt if the Knesset passes a bill allowing blanket exemptions to remain — even if it does satisfy the court — while the Haredim have said they will quit if the government fails to pass legislation to prevent the draft.

Haredi parties lambasted the High Court’s decision, with the head of United Torah Judaism, Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, describing it as constituting “severe harm to those who toil in Torah” and “a stain and a disgrace.”

Shas party head Aryeh Deri said the decision constituted “unprecedented maltreatment for Torah study in the Jewish state.”

But the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which filed the petitions against the government leading to Thursday’s decision, described it as “an historic interim ruling which signifies the end of the illegitimate discrimination between different types of blood,” adding that “no longer [will there be] support for those who are not partners in the burden [of military service].”

A history of foot-dragging

The current flurry of activity around ultra-Orthodox enlistment stems from petitions filed to the High Court last year challenging the legality of a cabinet resolution from June 25, 2023, in which the government instructed the IDF conscription authorities that “no procedures be taken to recruit of yeshiva students” until March 31, 2024.

The government passed that resolution because the law allowing for blanket military service exemptions — technically annual deferrals until the age of exemption — for Haredi yeshiva students was set to expire.

By March 31, the government was supposed to have found a way to comply with a court ruling from 2017, which determined blanket military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to be discriminatory and illegal. But it told the court in February it had been unable to do so because of the October 7 atrocities and the outbreak of war with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The High Court holds a hearing over the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment in the IDF, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The state said at the time that it needed more time to legislate such a law as a result of the war and said it would outline what the draft law would include by the end of March, and then request a further extension until the end of June to pass the legislation.

Most Jewish Israeli men are required to serve nearly three years followed by years of annual reserve duty. Many Jewish women serve two years. But the politically powerful Haredim, who make up roughly 13% of Israeli society, have traditionally 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 has peaked since Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught and the war that has ensued as other communities’ members are losing their lives in the IDF and are also being asked to expand their reserve service, as the threats facing Israel grow.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Gantz — who comprise the war cabinet together with Netanyahu — say the prime minister’s proposed law doesn’t go far enough toward increasing the number of Haredi young men who will join the army. Critics say some proposed aspects, such as raising the age of permanent exemption — now apparently dropped — could even depress the numbers.

Among the Jewish majority, mandatory military service is largely seen as a melting pot and rite of passage. The Haredim say that integrating into the army will threaten their generations-old way of life and that their dedication to Torah study protects Israel as much as a strong army.

Economists say the system is unsustainable. With its high birthrate, the Haredi community is the fastest-growing segment of the population, at about 4% annually. Each year, roughly 13,000 Haredi males reach the conscription age of 18, but fewer than 10% enlist, according to the Knesset’s State Control Committee, which recently held a hearing on the matter.

Funds withheld

According to Thursday’s High Court decision, the funds paid by the state to Haredi yeshivas for students who have not received a military service deferral and who have not presented themselves for conscription since July 1, 2023 — when the previous law regulating deferrals expired — will be frozen.

This will lead to a shortfall in funding for 1,257 yeshivas currently receiving funding for some 49,485 enrolled students who were receiving annual military service deferrals, according to figures presented by the State Attorney’s Office to the High Court last week.

The reduction in funding varies, but according to the figures presented by the State Attorney’s Office, the funding for some 371 yeshivas with some 36,000 enrolled students will be cut by 30 to 70 percent, and by an even higher rate for 31 of those yeshivas.

The court’s decision to cut funding immediately for these institutions goes a step further than Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara suggested in a response to the petitions filed earlier on Thursday, in which she proposed that a short adjustment period be allowed during which the payments would still be made.

The High Court’s stricter ruling is another indication that it wants the government to act faster in addressing the ongoing ultra-Orthodox conscription conundrum.

According to the State Attorney’s Office, there are some 63,000 enrolled yeshiva students who will be legally subject to the draft after April 1. Some 1,500 Haredi yeshivas currently receive funding for approximately 56,500 of those students.

Thursday’s court decision comes within the context of petitions filed against the government’s cabinet resolution in June 2023 instructing the army to temporarily not draft Haredi yeshiva students, even though the law allowing for their mass exemptions had expired, in order to buy time to pass a new law granting them the exemptions once again.

Petitions were also filed against the state-paid monthly stipends that full-time yeshiva students receive, since the provision of those funds was tied up in the military service exemption law.

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis stage a counterprotest outside the Supreme Court ahead of a hearing over a petition demanding that a government resolution ordering the state temporarily not to enforce such conscription be annulled, February 26, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An official in the Yeshivas Committee that organizes yeshivas eligible for state support said he estimates some 55,000 yeshiva students will stop receiving the funding at this stage.

The High Court also said in its decision that it would hold a second hearing in May on yeshiva funding before an expanded panel of nine justices.

Eligible for arrest

Earlier on Thursday, the Attorney General’s Office told the court that come April 1, the state will be legally obligated to begin drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students and there will no longer be a legal basis for the state to pay such students’ monthly stipends.

This, said Baharav-Miara, was due to the fact that the Government Resolution 682 from June 2023 will expire at midnight on March 31.

“From the outset, Government Resolution 682 was based on the premise of promoting legislation. Therefore, with the expiration of the resolution, and in the absence of an alternative framework, as of April 1, 2024, no source of authority will exist that allows for the continued blanket avoidance of drafting yeshiva students,” wrote the Attorney General’s Office in its response to the court.

“In such circumstances, all authorized state officials will be legally obligated to act on conscription procedures for yeshiva students starting on April 1, 2024.”

Left: Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara in Tel Aviv, June 20, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90); Right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, September 1, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Pool)

It seems unlikely that the military police will begin actively enforcing conscription orders this coming Monday. But ultra-Orthodox men who are eligible for the draft and fall foul of traffic violations or try to leave the country could face arrest, Channel 12 news reported.

Asked about the matter while speaking to reporters in his nightly briefing, IDF spokesperson Daniel Hagari said that the army would “act in accordance with the law.”

The Attorney General’s Office filed its response to the petitions after the government requested three short-term extensions over some 24 hours in order to be able to present the High Court with a concrete proposal for increasing Haredi enlistment.

The government had previously committed to the court to do this, and to approve such a proposal as a new cabinet resolution, as its response to the petitions. It said it would then ask the court for another three-month extension within which to pass the proposal as new legislation.

The government failed, however, to draw up a substantive proposal, based on professional input, that might realistically increase Haredi conscription, the Attorney General’s Office said. As such, Baharav-Miara said she could not back the response the government sought to file, and her office filed its own response, but appended the prime minister’s position separately.

In a letter written personally by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which was included in the filing, he acknowledged that the government had not come up with concrete proposals and asked for a 30-day extension to the court’s deadline, which the court ultimately declined.

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