Israeli Supreme Court Says Ultra-Orthodox Men Must Serve in Military

A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)
A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)
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Israeli Supreme Court Says Ultra-Orthodox Men Must Serve in Military

A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)
A man carries an Israeli flag next to an ultra-Orthodox Jew as protesters gather for a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, near the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 17, 2024. (Reuters)

Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men for military service, a decision that could lead to the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition as Israel continues to wage war in Gaza. 

The court ruled that in the absence of a law that distinguishes between Jewish seminary students and other draftees, Israel’s compulsory military service system applies to the ultra-Orthodox like any other citizens. 

Under longstanding arrangements, ultra-Orthodox men have been exempt from the draft, which is compulsory for most Jewish men and women. These exemptions have long been a source of anger among the secular public, a divide that has widened during the eight-month-old war, as the military has called up tens of thousands of soldiers and says it needs all the manpower it can get. Over 600 soldiers have been killed. 

Politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties, key partners in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, oppose any change in the current system. If the exemptions are ended, they could bolt the coalition, causing the government to collapse and leading to new elections. 

During arguments, government lawyers told the court that forcing ultra-Orthodox men to enlist would “tear Israeli society apart.” 

The court decision comes at a sensitive time, as the war in Gaza drags on into its ninth month and the number of dead soldiers continues to mount. 

The court found that the state was carrying out “invalid selective enforcement, which represents a serious violation of the rule of law, and the principle according to which all individuals are equal before the law.” 

It did not say how many ultra-Orthodox should be drafted. 

The court also ruled that state subsidies for seminaries where exempted ultra-Orthodox men study should remain suspended. The court temporarily froze the seminary budgets earlier this year. 

In a post on the social media platform X, cabinet minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, who heads one of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, called the ruling “very unfortunate and disappointing.” He did not say whether his party would bolt the government. 

“The state of Israel was established in order to be a home for the Jewish people whose Torah is the bedrock of its existence. The Holy Torah will prevail,” he wrote. 

The ultra-Orthodox see their full-time religious study as their part in protecting the state of Israel. Many fear that greater contact with secular society through the military will distance adherents from strict observance of the faith. 

Ultra-Orthodox men attend special seminaries that focus on religious studies, with little attention on secular topics like math, English or science. Critics have said they are ill-prepared to serve in the military or enter the secular work force. 

Religious women generally receive blanket exemptions that are not as controversial, in part because women are not expected to serve in combat units. 

The ruling now sets the stage for growing friction within the coalition between those who support drafting more ultra-Orthodox and those who oppose the idea. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers are likely to face intense pressure from religious leaders and their constituents and may have to choose whether remaining in the government is worthwhile for them. 

Shuki Friedman, vice-president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank said the ultra-Orthodox “understand that they don’t have a better political alternative, but at same time their public is saying ‘why did we vote for you?’” 

The exemptions have faced years of legal challenges and a string of court decisions has found the system unjust. But Israeli leaders, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, have repeatedly stalled. It remains unclear whether Netanyahu will be able to do so again. 

Netanyahu’s coalition is buoyed by two ultra-Orthodox parties who oppose increasing enlistment for their constituents. The long-serving Israeli leader has tried to adhere to the court’s rulings while also scrambling to preserve his coalition. But with a slim majority of 64 seats in the 120-member parliament, he's often beholden to the pet issues of smaller parties. 

Netanyahu has been promoting a bill tabled by a previous government in 2022 that sought to address the issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment. 

But critics say that bill was crafted before the war and doesn’t do enough to address a pressing manpower shortfall as the army seeks to maintain its forces in the Gaza Strip while also preparing for potential war with the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which has been fighting with Israel since the war in Gaza erupted last October. 

With its high birthrate, the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest-growing segment of the population, at about 4% annually. Each year, roughly 13,000 ultra-Orthodox males reach the conscription age of 18, but less than 10% enlist, according to the Israeli parliament’s State Control Committee. 



Biden Battles COVID and Democrats as Crisis Grows

President Joe Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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Biden Battles COVID and Democrats as Crisis Grows

President Joe Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
President Joe Biden walks down the steps of Air Force One at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Wednesday, July 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Joe Biden holed up at his beach house Thursday, battling both a bout of COVID and calls by senior allies for him to abandon his 2024 reelection bid.

While rival Donald Trump prepared for his star turn at the Republican National Convention, the 81-year-old US president found himself in both personal and political isolation.

The top Democrats in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, both reportedly met with Biden in recent days to warn that his candidacy threatens his party's prospects in November's election.

Influential former House speaker Nancy Pelosi added to his woes by privately telling Biden he cannot win and could harm Democrats' chances of recapturing the lower chamber, CNN reported.

Several party figures were meanwhile quoted anonymously by the Axios news outlet as saying that they believed the pressure would persuade Biden to drop out as soon as this weekend.

Biden has insisted he is not backing down, adamant that he is the candidate who beat Trump before and will do it again this year. Pressed about reports that Biden might be softening to the idea of leaving the race, his deputy campaign manager Quentin Fulks said Thursday: “He is not wavering on anything.”

"He's staying in the race," Fulks told a press conference on the sidelines of the Republican convention in Milwaukee.

"Our campaign is not working through any scenarios where President Biden is not the top of the ticket -- he is and will be the Democratic nominee."

California Senator Alex Padilla said Biden was "not skipping a beat."

"I know having spoken to him personally he's committed to the campaign," he added.

Using mountains of data showing Biden’s standing could wipe out the ranks of Democrats in Congress, frank conversations in public and private, and now, the president’s own time off the campaign trail after testing positive for COVID-19, many Democrats see an opportunity to encourage a reassessment.

Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he was "doing well."

His COVID diagnosis however came at the worst possible time for his campaign, forcing him to cut short a trip to Las Vegas and isolate at his holiday home in Rehoboth, Delaware.

The split-screen with Trump could not have been more stark, with Trump set to formally accept the Republican nomination in Milwaukee.

US networks showed images of frail looking Biden gingerly descending the steps of Air Force One in Delaware, in a week when Trump is lauded by supporters each night at a packed party convention.

Former president Trump, who at 78 is just three years younger than Biden, is riding a wave of support from his party after surviving an assassination attempt on Saturday that left him with a bandaged ear.

The United States could now be approaching the climax of an extraordinary three weeks in politics, which started when Biden gave a disastrous performance during a televised debate with Trump.

Biden blamed jet lag and a cold, but the fact that America's commander-in-chief has now fallen ill for a second time just as fears grow about his fitness for the job has merely intensified the panic in Democratic ranks.