Israel court hears challenges to religious draft waiver amid Gaza war

By Thomson Reuters Feb 26, 2024 | 5:08 AM

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The top Israeli court heard challenges on Monday to exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews from military conscription, a long-standing source of friction with more secular citizens now stoked by the country’s costly mobilisation in the Gaza war.

In the name of equality, the Supreme Court in 2018 voided a law waiving the draft for ultra-Orthodox men. Parliament failed to come up with a new arrangement, and a government-issued stay on mandatory conscription of ultra-Orthodox expires next month.

The ultra-Orthodox claim the right to study in seminaries instead of serving in uniform for the standard three years. Some say their pious lifestyles would clash with military mores, while others voice ideological opposition to the liberal state.

The ultra-Orthodox make up 13% of Israel’s population, a figure expected to reach 19% by 2035 due to their high birth rates. Economists argue that the draft exemption keeps some of them unnecessarily in seminaries and out of the workforce.

With fighting against Palestinian Hamas militants in Gaza and knock-on violence on the Lebanese border exacting the highest military casualties in decades, many Israelis resent their fellow citizens being spared their share of the risk.

Hundreds of Israeli flag-waiving protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court as it opened hearings of petitions against the waivers. With ultra-Orthodox parties serving in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s religious-rightist coalition, the public controversy has often fed into anti-government sentiment.

“The prolonged war in Gaza teaches us the critical need to expand recruitment to all parts of Israeli society,” said the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, among groups that petitioned the Supreme Court against the ultra-Orthodox waivers.

“Equal burden is not a slogan, it is a strategic and security necessity, and this demand for true equality in recruitment should be shared by everyone who holds this country dear to their heart.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Nick Macfie)