Likud says it's working on conscription law to resolve issue

Ultra-Orthodox parties slam ‘dictatorial’ High Court for ruling Haredim must enlist

Opposition chief Lapid demands government begin immediate mass draft of yeshiva students: ‘The Torah is not an excuse for evasion and the Talmud is not an excuse for refusal’

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with Israeli police during a protest in Jerusalem on April 10, 2014, following the arrest of a Haredi draft-dodger and against legislation intended to enforce ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the IDF. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with Israeli police during a protest in Jerusalem on April 10, 2014, following the arrest of a Haredi draft-dodger and against legislation intended to enforce ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the IDF. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox coalition allies fiercely condemned the High Court of Justice as biased on Tuesday, after it ruled that there is no legal basis for excluding ultra-Orthodox men from the military draft.

The Torah is Israel’s “secret weapon against all enemies” and “no power in the world” can stop the Jewish people from studying it, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri declared, linking the contributions of those who study Talmud full-time to those fighting in Gaza and in the north.

“The Jewish people survived persecutions, pogroms and wars only thanks to maintaining their uniqueness, the Torah and the commandments. This is our secret weapon against all enemies, as promised by the Creator of the universe,” he said, describing yeshiva students as “the ones who preserve our special power and generate miracles in the [military] campaign.”

Ending an exemption

The historic judgement, which overturns decades of draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, states explicitly that the government must “act to enforce the Law for Military Service on yeshiva students,” compelling state agencies to take active steps to draft such men into IDF service.

It also stated that the government can no longer provide financial support for yeshiva students studying in lieu of military service since the law providing for that arrangement has lapsed.

The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party also slammed the ruling, with its chairman, Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, stating that despite the court’s “very unfortunate” decision, “the holy Torah will prevail.”

Shas party leader MK Aryeh Deri, at his home in Jerusalem, on April 15, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

“There has never been a ruling by the High Court in favor of yeshiva students and in the interest of the ultra-Orthodox public,” tweeted senior UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni, accusing the court of failing to understand yeshiva students’ “contribution to the people of Israel.”

Ultra-Orthodox men of military age have been able to avoid being conscripted to the Israel Defense Forces for decades by enrolling in yeshivas for Torah study and obtaining repeated one-year service deferrals until they reach the age of military exemption.

There are currently an estimated 67,000 Haredi males who are eligible for service.

In an apparent show of defiance to the court, Jerusalem Affairs Minister Meir Porush of UTJ insisted that yeshiva students would “continue to study Torah as they used to in the country that Ben Gurion declared,” while his fellow party member MK Yisrael Eichler went even further, calling the court a “dictatorial body that seized power from the hands of the elected government” and “seeks to force a religious war on the streets.”

Next steps

While the ruling stated that the government must enlist the ultra-Orthodox, it said that the petition it ruled on Tuesday was not the right framework “to discuss the details of how the law is implemented or the scale of enlistment for yeshiva students,” and that it was not issuing an opinion on that issue, implying that the government has some leeway in how many ultra-Orthodox men it needs to draft on an immediate basis.

Asked if United Torah Judaism would leave the coalition if the government begins drafting yeshiva students, party MK Moshe Roth told The Times of Israel that “the government isn’t enlisting” them, adding that “United Torah Judaism isn’t leaving the coalition so fast during wartime.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a highway during a protest against conscripting Haredi yeshiva students to the IDF, in Bnei Brak on June 20, 2024. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have long presented the forcible enlistment of yeshiva students as a red line that would endanger the already tenuous stability of their alliance with Netanyahu, who is dependent on their support to maintain his thin majority in the Knesset.

Asked about his party’s plans, a spokesman for Goldknopf replied that no decision had yet been made as the court’s ruling is “theoretical” until the army begins to implement it.

The enlistment bill

In the meantime, he indicated that his party is focused on forging an agreement on a controversial enlistment bill currently being debated in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which would lower the current age of exemption for yeshiva students from 26 to 21 while “very slowly” increasing the rate of ultra-Orthodox conscription.

If that bill passes then “everything will be okay,” he said.

Following Tuesday’s ruling, Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Yuli Edelstein (Likud) said the debate over the bill would continue “as usual.”

Multiple members of the committee, including Likud lawmakers, have previously stated that they do not intend to allow the law to advance to its second and third readings, which is needed to pass it into law without major revisions.

Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Yuli Edelstein attends a debate on the government-backed Haredi draft legislation, June 24, 2024. (Noam Moshkovitz/Knesset spokesperson)

Speaking with The Times of Israel, Yesh Atid MK Moshe Tur-Paz, an alternate member of the committee, mused that without new legislation there will be no way to ensure the continued flow of government money to the yeshivas.

This creates “a significant incentive for the ultra-Orthodox and the coalition to finish the legislation” and gives them reason to agree on a “reasonable” annual recruitment quota.

A spokesman for Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, a former IDF manpower chief who also serves on the committee, appeared to agree, stating that the cancellation of the yeshiva budgets constitutes “the main pressure ‘lever’ at the moment and this is what will change the recruitment data.”

National Unity chairman Benny Gantz promised on Tuesday evening to implement “a broad and comprehensive solution” to the issue of enlistment if he were to establish a government, stating that he will bring “a real service plan for both the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs.”

Addressing the annual Herzliya conference at Reichman University, the former war cabinet minister said he was “disturbed” the High Court of Justice was forced to get involved in enlistment due to “political considerations” that prevented the government from dealing with the issue.

“Unfortunately, in the dialogue we had with the ultra-Orthodox leaders, we have not yet been able to reach a correct and real outline,” he said, declaring that he will not support any “sham” laws — a reference to the enlistment bill currently being deliberated in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee.

Labor MK Merav Michaeli, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told The Times of Israel that the current law on the table “may solve the political problem of this government, but not the existing distortion.”

There is no need for a special law for ultra-Orthodox service. There is a security service law, which equally says that everyone must be drafted. The IDF should be allowed to implement it, and exempt from conscription those whom the IDF thinks are not suitable for conscription on an individual and not a group level,” she said.

“We must not continue to allow a group of politicians and rabbis to leave the ultra-Orthodox youth behind, to prevent them from enlisting in the IDF and integrating into Israeli society. The ultra-Orthodox leadership wants to keep their power and impose a closed society on the ultra-Orthodox youth. This invalid situation must be stopped now,” Michaeli added.

Criticizing the court… and the opposition

In a statement, the Likud party questioned why the court would rule on the issue prior to the “completion of the historic conscription law that is currently being prepared for a second and third reading,” stating that such legislation is the “only solution” to the enlistment issue.

Ultra-Orthodox students seen at the Ponovitz Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, February 27, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

It also lambasted National Unity chairman Gantz for opposing the bill despite initially backing it as defense minister during the previous government, prompting harsh pushback from the opposition party.

“If this law is so historic and correct, how come Prime Minister Netanyahu and the ultra-orthodox factions voted against it” when it was initially brought to the Knesset two years ago? National Unity asked in response.

When Gantz first presented the legislation in 2022, he insisted that it be accompanied by a plan to extend the requirement of national service to both ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis.

‘There are judges in Jerusalem’

While Likud and the ultra-Orthodox panned the court’s ruling, it was held up as a triumph for the rule of law by both right- and left-wing opposition parties.

Illustrative: Haredi soldiers.

“There are judges in Jerusalem,” Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman tweeted, quoting a saying frequently attributed to Likud founder and former prime minister Menachem Begin.

“In a year where a whole brigade of soldiers was lost or badly injured, in a year where reservists served for over 200 days, there is no clearer proof that the IDF needs more recruits, more people to share the load,” he said, congratulating the court for taking “a significant step on the way to historical change.”

“Conservatives and liberals: There are judges in Jerusalem,” New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar also tweeted, echoing Liberman’s rhetoric, while newly elected Labor Party chief Yair Golan offered his “congratulations on a just decision of the High Court of Justice.”

Mobilize them now

Addressing the annual Herzliya Conference at Reichman University, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid called on the government to begin an immediate mass mobilization of yeshiva students.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid speaks at the Herzliya Conference on June 24, 2024. (Screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“The High Court spoke this morning, and it was clear and sharp, including the most conservative judges: There is no more exemption for the ultra-Orthodox. Draft exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox are illegal. The defense minister must uphold the law and issue conscription orders to tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox youth who have so far evaded military service,” Lapid demanded.

“The Torah is not an excuse for evasion and the Talmud is not an excuse for refusal,” he continued, warning the government against continuing to fund ineligible yeshivas “under the table” and declaring that failing to follow the law constitutes “a betrayal” of the IDF.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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