Top court gives government until February to pass ultra-Orthodox enlistment law

High Court of Justice says it won’t grant further extension of deadline for legislating exemptions to mandatory military service for yeshiva students

Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion sit in a field at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion sit in a field at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Tuesday gave the government until February 1 to pass legislation exempting ultra-Orthodox seminary students from mandatory military service, saying no further extensions to the deadline would be granted.

As a result of the ruling, which came in response to a government request for the deadline to be extended by six months, ultra-Orthodox students will be conscripted like other Israelis required to enlist if no law is advanced.

The ultra-Orthodox community has historically enjoyed blanket deferrals from the military in favor of religious seminary studies, and many of its members shun military service, which is mandatory for other Jewish Israelis. However, there is opposition to the arrangement from many in the broader population, who want the ultra-Orthodox to help shoulder the burden of defending the country.

Multiple variations of the ultra-Orthodox draft law have been advanced by the Knesset and knocked down by the High Court of Justice in a decade-long legal and political saga.

Young Israelis arrive at the Tel Hashomer military base to enlist in the ‘Netzah Yehuda’ battalion, on July 30, 2015. (Photo by Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

The court decision was hailed by Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who has long called for increasing ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

“The time has come to restore ‘equality of the burden’. Every young person is required to serve the country. No one gets discounts,” Lapid, who heads the Yesh Atid party, wrote on Twitter.

In 2017, the High Court struck down a law granting most yeshiva students exemptions from military service as unconstitutional and gave lawmakers a year to institute new guidelines for ultra-Orthodox enlistment. The court has since extended the deadline numerous times.

Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion study at the Peles Military Base, in the northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

A failure to pass a Defense Ministry-backed bill formalizing exemptions to conscription was the ostensible reason for the calling of early elections in December 2018 and wrangling over the enlistment of yeshiva students following the first of three consecutive elections helped set off a prolonged period of political deadlock.

The Defense Ministry-drafted bill then being debated would have set minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would trigger financial sanctions on the yeshivas where the students study. At the same time, it would also formalize exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men argue with an Israeli soldier during a protest in Jerusalem against the draft for members of their community, on October 17, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The new bill is expected to be softened. Ultra-Orthodox parties — which are closely allied with Netanyahu’s Likud — have in the past threatened to bolt the coalition unless dramatic changes were made to the bill.

Last December, the IDF announced it had launched an investigation into the years-long inflation of enlistment numbers of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, following a report on the matter by the Kan broadcaster. According to the exposé, over the course of several years, the IDF published false information on the number of people joining the military from the ultra-Orthodox population, sometimes doubling or tripling the actual figures, making it seem as though the IDF was closer to meeting the quotas set by law than it was in reality.

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