Israeli Military Must Draft Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Supreme Court Rules

But the ultra-Orthodox parties, with few palatable options, might not be eager to bring down Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, he said. “They don’t see an alternative, so they’ll try to make it work for as long as they can,” said Mr. Cohen. “They will compromise more than they might have been willing to a year ago in an attempt to preserve the government.”

For now, the military must devise a plan to potentially welcome to its ranks thousands of soldiers who are opposed to serving and whose insularity and traditions are at odds with a modern fighting force.

The court’s decision creates a “gaping political wound in the heart of the coalition” that Mr. Netanyahu now must urgently address, said Yohanan Plesner, chairman of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank.

In a statement, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party criticized the Supreme Court for issuing a ruling when the government was planning to pass legislation that would render the case obsolete. The government’s proposed law, the party said, would increase the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts while recognizing the importance of religious study.

It was unclear whether Mr. Netanyahu’s proposal would ultimately hold up to judicial scrutiny. But if passed by Parliament, a new law could face years of court challenges, buying the government additional time, said Mr. Plesner.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday immediately sparked outrage among ultra-Orthodox politicians. Many ultra-Orthodox view military service as a gateway to assimilation into a secular Israeli society that would lead young people to deviate from a lifestyle guided by the Torah, the Jewish scriptures.

“The State of Israel was established in order to be a home for the Jewish people, for whom Torah is the bedrock of their existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” Yitzhak Goldknopf, an ultra-Orthodox government minister, said in a statement on Monday.

After the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, Israelis united in determination to strike back. But as thousands of reserve soldiers were asked to serve second and third tours in Gaza, the fault lines in Israeli society quickly resurfaced.

Some Israeli analysts warn that war could spread to additional fronts in the West Bank and the northern border with Lebanon, leading the government to call for more conscripts and further straining relations between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Already many Israelis — secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox alike — see the draft issue as just one skirmish in a broader cultural battle over the country’s increasingly uncertain future.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been exempt from military service since the founding of Israel in 1948, when the country’s leadership promised them autonomy in exchange for their support in creating a largely secular state. At the time, there were only a few hundred yeshiva students.

The ultra-Orthodox have grown to more than a million people, roughly 13 percent of Israel’s population. They wield considerable political clout and their elected leaders became kingmakers, featuring in most Israeli coalition governments.

But as ultra-Orthodox power grew, so did anger over their failure to join the military and their relatively small contribution to the economy. In 2019, Avigdor Lieberman, a former ally of Mr. Netanyahu, rebuffed his offer to join a coalition that would legislate the draft exemption for the ultra-Orthodox. The decision helped send Israel to repeated elections — five in four years.

Last year, after Mr. Netanyahu returned to power at the helm of his current coalition, he sought to legislate a plan to weaken the country’s judiciary, setting off mass protests. For the ultra-Orthodox, who backed the judicial overhaul, a major motivation was ensuring that the Supreme Court could no longer impede their ability to avoid the draft.

Ron Scherf, a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli reserves, said many soldiers were frustrated to be serving multiple tours of duty during the war, even as ultra-Orthodox Israelis are “never called up in the first place.”

An activist with Brothers in Arms, a collection of reserve soldiers who oppose Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Scherf asked, “How can Israel just allow an entire community to be exempt from its civic duties?”

Gabby Sobelman, Johnatan Reiss and Myra Noveck contributed reporting.

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