What next for Israel’s military exemption for ultra-Orthodox community?

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Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled the state must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students to the military, a move that ends a longstanding exemption on their conscription and risks destabilizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

While there was some breathing room for Netanyahu to seek a compromise that keeps his coalition together, Israel’s attorney general said the process to begin drafting some 3,000 ultra-Orthodox students had to begin immediately.

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The draft exemption, in place for decades and which over the years has exempted an increasingly large number of people, has become a heated topic in Israel with the military embroiled in a war in Gaza and an escalating conflict on its border with Lebanon.

What happens now?

Ultra-Orthodox Jews were preparing to protest in Jerusalem at 1600 GMT on Wednesday, to express their anger over the court’s ruling. The ruling also cuts off state funding to schools for students who don’t comply with the draft.

Netanyahu depends on support from ultra-Orthodox parties to stay in power. His government is already trying to craft a law that complies with the Supreme Court, without angering his coalition partners.

This legislation now progressing through the Knesset (parliament) would see a gradual entry into the military of an increasing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The government could point to that bill - if it passes - as evidence it is implementing the court ruling, while also introducing amendments to the bill that soften the impact on ultra-Orthodox seminary students.

On the other hand, if the bill flounders and the ruling holds, it could put extra strains on Netanyahu’s coalition, potentially pushing the nation towards an election.

What lies behind the ruling?

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 percent 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.

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 neighborhoods 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 mainstream Israelis, whose taxes subsidies the Haredim and who are themselves obliged to serve in the military, the exemptions have long bred resentment, and this has grown since the start of the war in Gaza in October.

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.

The increasingly heavy exchanges of fire between Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah and Israel’s military across the northern border has fueled the debate.

What is at stake for Netanyahu?

For Netanyahu the stakes are high. While public opinion has tended to favor removing the exemptions, his government includes two Haredi parties whose departure could trigger a new election, which opinion polls indicate he would lose.

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In the past, two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, United Torah Judaism and Shas, have vowed to fight any effort to end the exemption.

Some inside Netanyahu’s Likud party have shown unease or opposition to the exemption, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, an ex-general.

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Israel supreme court rules ultra-Orthodox students must be drafted to military

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