How a bill to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews could bring down Israel's government

5 min read
13 March, 2024

Last week, Israel's Chief Sephardic Rabbi declared that if a bill to draft all ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli military materialises, they would leave the state.

"If they force us to go to the army, we'll all go abroad," Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said. "They need to understand this, all these secular people don't get it."

Hitting a nerve in Israeli society, Yosef’s remarks come as the state nears a 24 March deadline to explain to Israel’s Supreme Court why it doesn’t draft ultra-Orthodox into the army.

The High Court issued the order on 26 February after petitions were heard against the government’s decision not to enlist young men in yeshivot (Jewish institutions for studying religious texts) despite the expiration of a law exempting them from service.

"The draft of ultra-Orthodox Jews is one of the most contentious wedge issues in Israeli politics"

All Israeli citizens must serve in the army when they turn 18. However, some exemptions are made based on physical, psychological, and religious grounds.

“The draft of ultra-Orthodox is one of the most contentious wedge issues in Israeli politics,” Eyal Lurie-Pardes, Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli affairs fellow at the Middle East Institute told The New Arab. “It's been at the centre of a lot of coalition crises.”

Political friction over enlisting ultra-Orthodox has been ongoing since 1998, when the High Court first ruled the exemption was unconstitutional because it discriminated against those who do serve.

In 2017, the court ruled again that laws passed in Israel’s parliament didn’t solve the issue, and new legislation must be introduced. Israel’s government received extensions in drafting a new law due to five consecutive elections, but now those extensions are up and the state must come to a decision.

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If the government doesn’t pass a law by 31 March, then ultra-Orthodox men will be conscripted and state funding for their yeshiva programs will end.

Just two days after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called to end the draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox men and announced he would only support legislation granting exemption if endorsed by centrist ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, part of Israel’s National Unity Party.

While declining to participate in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition in 2022, five National Unity Party members joined the coalition when the war on Gaza began in October 2023 and agreed to stay for the war’s duration.

“Gallant placed a political joker in the hands of Gantz and Eisenkot, giving them an opportunity to control the future of this unity government,” Lurie-Pardes told TNA.

Political friction over enlisting ultra-Orthodox Jews has been ongoing since 1998 when the High Court first ruled the exemption was unconstitutional. [Getty]

Gantz and Eisenkot are both former Israeli military chiefs of staff, making the possibility of enacting an Orthodox-approved bill unlikely.

“It’s going to be very difficult to bridge the positions between the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] parties to maintain the status quo,” Alex Lederman from Israel Policy Forum told TNA.

“Meanwhile Benny Gantz’s and Eisenkot’s positions and others in their party have been there needs to be a sharing of the burden equally among Israeli citizens regardless of what sector of society they come from.”

With Gallant’s announcement, Netanyahu, who is already in a fragile political position, is now squeezed between a rock and a hard place.

“If Netanyahu wants to still be in power by the summer, he’ll need to okay a draft exemption law,” a member of the Israeli political party, United Torah Judaism, told Israeli broadcaster, KAN.

"If there's something that could bring down the government, it could be this"

Fearing early elections, Netanyahu now must find a way to appease both the religious right and secular moderates in his government.

“He has to balance not just the centrist parties that sit to his left, but also this flank that's emerging within the Likud,” Lederman said, surmising that Gallant isn’t the only member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party striving not to alienate the cabinet’s centrist lawmakers.

Despite the daunting task, Lurie-Pardes considers agreement within the coalition is possible. “The difference between the official position of the Haredi parties and the official position of the security establishment is not a lot,” he told TNA.

“The problem here is mostly in rhetoric,” Lurie-Pardes added. “Whether you define it as quotas or you just have a different definition of what constitutes a justifiable exemption from the draft - you can find the right language to benefit both sides.”

In that regard, the crisis could be solved, but if not, it’s because the government wants elections.

“They will try to leverage the political joker, for example, to push Netanyahu to agree to hold elections at the end of 2024 perhaps,” Lurie-Pardes told TNA.

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A deepening divide

The Israeli army has always viewed drafting the ultra-Orthodox community as a logistical headache given that certain Orthodox considerations (like not mixing with women) clash with military service. Yet with war raging and manpower depleted, the army is looking to boost recruitment by any means.

A draft bill put forward by the Defence Ministry in February proposes extending mandatory military service for men by up to three years and raising the age of reservist duty to 50. The proposed legislation coupled with possibly renewing an Orthodox draft exemption has roiled tensions among Israelis.

“Israeli society at large, outside of the Haredi community, is fed up with this current arrangement. Even many on the political right like Defence Minister Gallant,” Lederman said.

The state wants to present a united front during wartime, yet turmoil over a potential Orthodox draft threatens to break that façade and expose longstanding rifts between Israel’s secular and religious populations.

Centrist lawmakers cite egalitarianism and security needs as Israeli newspaper editorials claim conscription will fix Israeli society. In stark juxtaposition, ultra-Orthodox men block highways over draft discussions.

In recent years there have been large-scale ultra-Orthodox protests against Israeli army conscription. [Getty]

Echoing the sentiments of Israel’s secular population, Shuki Friedman, vice president of the Jewish People's Policy Institute, said, “Because of the war, there’s a feeling among Israelis that they’re bleeding and the ultra-Orthodox are sitting in their houses safe”.

Around 66,000 ultra-Orthodox men were exempted from the army in 2023, according to the Israeli military. With the birth rate among Israel’s ultra-Orthodox increasing, the divide between the religious and secular sectors may widen even more. And with that, the concept of Israeli unity could surely rupture.

“If there's something that could bring down the government, it could be this,” Lederman said.

Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.

Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum