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Ultra-Orthodox Israelis resist push for military service

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties are resisting pressure to lift exemptions of religious students from military duty, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggles to preserve his coalition and spread the wartime burden across society fairly.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews line up at an Israeli draft office to process their exemptions from mandatory military service at a recruitment base in Kiryat Ono, Israel, March 28, 2024. Picture: Reuters, Hannah McKay

JERUSALEM – Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties are resisting pressure to lift exemptions of religious students from military duty, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggles to preserve his coalition and spread the wartime burden across society fairly.

With a March 31 deadline looming for the Israeli government to come up with legislation to resolve a decades-long stand-off over the issue, Netanyahu filed a last-minute application to the Supreme Court for a 30-day deferment.

In an apparent accommodation, the Supreme Court gave government officials until April 30 to submit additional arguments. But, in an interim ruling, it also ordered a suspension of state funding for seminary students who would be liable for conscription from Monday.

WHAT LIES BEHIND THE STAND-OFF?

The exemptions offered to the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community date back to the early days of the state of Israel in 1948 when its first prime minister, the socialist David Ben-Gurion, exempted about 400 students from military service so they could devote themselves to religious study. In so doing, Ben-Gurion hoped to keep alive sacred knowledge and traditions almost wiped out in the Holocaust.

Since then, the exemptions have become an increasing headache as the fast-growing community has expanded to make up more than 13% of Israel’s population, a proportion expected to reach around a third within 40 years due to a high birth rate.

The Haredi resistance to joining the military is based around their strong sense of religious identity, which many families fear risks being weakened by army service.

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Some Haredi men do serve in the army but most do not, which many secular Israelis feel exacerbates social divisions. Often living in heavily Orthodox neighbourhoods and devoting their lives to religious study, many Haredi men do not work for money but live off donations, state benefits and the often paltry wages of their wives, many of whom do work.

For secular Israelis, whose taxes subsidise the Haredim and who are themselves obliged to serve in the military, the exemptions have long bred resentment and this has grown in the six months since the start of the war in Gaza.

Many Israelis regard the war against Hamas as an existential battle for the future of the country, and some 300,000 reservists joined up to fight. Opinion polls indicate very broad public support for removing the exemptions on the Haredi draft.

WHAT IS AT STAKE FOR NETANYAHU?

For Netanyahu the stakes are high. While public opinion appears to favour removing the exemptions, his government includes two Haredi parties whose departure could trigger new elections, which opinion polls indicate he would lose.

On Thursday, the two parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, denounced the latest Supreme Court ruling and vowed to fight it, although they have so far not explicitly threatened to quit the government.

From the other side, allies of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, including the centrist Benny Gantz, a former army general who is in pole position to become prime minister if elections were held, want more Israelis to serve to share the burden more widely.

Gallant said recently that any new conscription law would need the support of all parties, suggesting he would oppose any new legislation that maintained the exemptions.

– REUTERS

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