Israeli court halts subsidies for ultra-Orthodox, deepening turmoil over mandatory military service

Israeli police officers scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during a protest against a potential new draft law which could end their exemptions from military service in Jerusalem, Monday, March 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Israeli police officers scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during a protest against a potential new draft law which could end their exemptions from military service in Jerusalem, Monday, March 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday ordered an end to government subsidies for many ultra-Orthodox men who do not serve in the army — a blockbuster ruling that could have far-reaching consequences for the government and the tens of thousands of religious men who refuse to take part in mandatory military service.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces the most serious threat yet to his government as he struggles to bridge a major split over military service in the shaky national unity government cobbled together in the days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Inside his coalition, the powerful bloc of ultra-Orthodox parties — longtime partners of Netanyahu — want draft exemptions to continue. The centrist members of his War Cabinet, both former military generals, have insisted that all sectors of Israeli society contribute equally during its war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.

If the ultra-Orthodox parties leave the government, the country would be forced into new elections, with Netanyahu trailing significantly in the polls amid the war.

Most Jewish men are required to serve nearly three years in the military, followed by years of reserve duty. Jewish women serve two mandatory years.

But the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox, who make up roughly 13% of Israeli society, have traditionally received exemptions while studying full time in religious seminaries.

The exemptions — coupled with government stipends many seminary students receive through age 26 — have infuriated much of the general public. These longstanding tensions have grown during nearly six months of war — in which over 500 Israeli soldiers have been killed.

The Supreme Court has ruled the current system discriminatory and given the government until Monday to present a new plan and until June 30 to pass it. Netanyahu on Thursday asked the court for a 30-day extension to find a compromise.

The court did not immediately respond to his request. But it issued an interim order barring the government from funding the monthly subsidies for religious students who are between the ages of 18 and 26 and have not received a deferral from the military in the past year. Funds will be frozen starting April 1.

The ruling will affect about a third of the 180,000 seminary students who receive subsidies from the government for full-time learning, according to Israel’s Channel 12 TV. It said the subsidies could be temporarily covered by the governing coalition’s discretionary funds.

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s top political rival and a member of the three-man War Cabinet, praised the court’s decision and said it recognized “the need for soldiers during a difficult war, and the need for everyone in our society to take part in the right to serve the country.”

Among Israel’s Jewish majority, mandatory military service is largely seen as a melting pot and rite of passage, and the army has said it is suffering from manpower shortages because of the war in Gaza.

The ultra-Orthodox say that integrating into the army will threaten their generations-old way of life and that their devout lifestyle and dedication to upholding the Jewish commandments protect Israel as much as a strong army. Religious leaders have vowed to fight attempts to force ultra-Orthodox men into the army and have staged mass protests against similar attempts in the past.

Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, called the court’s decision “unprecedented bullying of Torah students in the Jewish state.”

In his letter to the Supreme Court requesting the extension, Netanyahu said additional time is needed to come to an agreement, “because it has been proven in the past that enlistment without an agreed-upon arrangement actually has the opposite effect.”

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