Historic Ruling: Orthodox Jews Must Serve in Israeli Military

As the war progresses and Israel has more and more human losses, the opening of a new front against Hezbollah is very possible, so this decision was expected, but that does not diminish its importance and symbolism

by Sededin Dedovic
Historic Ruling: Orthodox Jews Must Serve in Israeli Military
© Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images

On Tuesday, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the government must also conscript Orthodox Jews into the military, a decree that is likely to create a rift within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.

The ruling coalition relies on the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties that consider the long-standing exemption from military service for their members to be crucial. This exemption allows them to stay in religious institutions and not violate their religious practices.

The issue has become particularly contentious following the offensive in Gaza and the conflict on the northern border with Lebanon. “At the height of a difficult war, the burden of inequality is greater than ever,” the court unanimously decided.

Military Service

Most Israelis are required to serve in the military, but this does not apply to the Orthodox religious communities. Since Israel's founding in 1948, Jewish men who study the Torah have received annual deferments from military service until the age of 26, at which point they are completely exempted.

This policy initially allowed a group of 400 young men to study sacred texts and preserve Jewish traditions, largely lost in the Holocaust.

: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men hold signs and pray as they block a main highway during a protest against drafting into the Israeli © Amir Levy / Getty Images

Today, however, the ultra-Orthodox community numbers 1.3 million people, bolstered by the fact that their women have an average of six children, compared to the national average of 2.5.

Just last year, 66,000 members of this community were exempted from military service, according to France Presse. Opposition politicians have praised the Supreme Court's ruling, which ends decades of exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish students.

“In Jerusalem, there are judges,” wrote Avigdor Liberman, head of Yisrael Beytenu, on the X network, quoting a saying often attributed to former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. “In a year when an entire brigade of soldiers was lost or severely injured, in a year when reservists served over 200 days, there is no clearer proof that the IDF needs more recruits, more people to share the burden,” he said.

He commended the court for taking “a significant step on the path to historic change”. “Conservatives and liberals: In Jerusalem, there are judges,” tweeted Gideon Sa’ar, president of New Hope, echoing Liberman’s rhetoric.

Police officers use water cannon as Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men block a main highway during a protest against drafting into the Is© Amir Levy / Getty Images

The newly elected head of the Labor Party, Yair Golan, congratulated the court on this decision and declared: “Where there is no government, there is justice”.

A Historic Moment for the State of Israel

This issue has caused deep divisions in society due to the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews or Haredim (pious people), as they are also known, from military service—a contentious topic since the formation of the state of Israel in 1948.

They argue that they serve the state “through prayer” and that for religious reasons they cannot bear arms. This raises the question of equality, especially in a country where men are required to serve three years in the military, and women two years, plus later serve in the reserve forces.

The Israeli state has been trying for years to resolve this issue, but influential ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, without which it has recently been impossible to form a government, have so far blocked any agreement. The war in Gaza, which has lasted for half a year, has further intensified the debate, as many Israelis are dissatisfied with the uneven distribution of the burden, questioning how long the ultra-Orthodox Jews will remain privileged.

Their refusal to serve in the military calls into question one of the fundamental principles of the social contract among Israeli Jews, who see themselves as a nation under arms. This debate also touches on Israeli identity, the duties of citizens, and social solidarity.

Leaving Israel

Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic community Yitzhak Yosef warned that “if we are forced to join the military, we will leave the country”. “They must understand that without the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), without yeshiva (religious school), there would be no existence, there would be no success for the military,” Yosef emphasized.

The Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef (C) and President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster po© Omer Messinger / Getty Images

He is the son of Ovadia Yosef, who was the spiritual leader of the ultra-right party Shas, an important partner in Netanyahu’s government.

His comment has drawn criticism for encouraging Israelis to leave the country during a national crisis, but also mockery, as many secular Israelis would not mind the mass departure of ultra-Orthodox Jews, as noted by Gilad Malach, an expert at the Israel Democracy Institute based in Jerusalem.

No Recruitment Despite 1998 Ruling

The Supreme Court ruled back in 1998 that the defense minister does not have the right to exempt Haredi Jews from military service and demanded that the government find ways to conscript them.

The center-right government under Netanyahu enacted a law in 2014 aimed at having 60% of men from the Haredi community serve three years in the military. However, in the 2015 elections, the ultra-conservative parties representing Haredi interests again became part of the ruling coalition, effectively abandoning this measure.

The law that temporarily allowed exemptions from military service expired in July last year, and the Supreme Court ordered the government to propose a new law by the end of March this year. This is a very significant day for Israel and the overall security situation in the country, as this has been a contentious issue for years that has not been widely covered by the media. We will see how the main parties that support the ultra-Orthodox Jews react, but the Supreme Court ruling is binding.