Netanyahu under pressure over ultra-Orthodox military exemptions

Israel's Defence Minister says conservative community should play a part in the war effort, a call that could prompt ultra-Orthodox parties to confront the government

Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have long protested against military service. AP
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces one of the most significant challenges to his power since October 7, after the country's Defence Minister publicly called for an end to controversial military service exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Yoav Gallant said he would support a continuation of the long-standing policy only with the backing of two key centrist ministers, who joined Mr Netanyahu’s unity government after the outbreak of the Gaza war.

Mr Gallant’s comments come as the debate about the role of the country’s growing ultra-Orthodox community in modern Israeli life is becoming increasingly bitter.

Since Israel’s foundation, the community has been exempt from military service, even though it is compulsory for other Jewish groups and some minorities in the country.

There is also growing anger at the vast sums of public money spent on subsidies to allow ultra-Orthodox men to study in full-time religious schools.

Ultra-Orthodox parties, which remain committed to keeping their young men out of the military for religious reasons, make up a significant bloc within Mr Netanyahu’s ruling coalition. Their withdrawal from the government in anger at being forced to serve could topple his administration.

Mr Netanyahu’s government has only a matter of weeks to pass a new law for students of ultra-Orthodox religious schools not to be called up in the military draft.

Mr Gallant’s insistence that ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot would have to agree to extend exemptions makes it far harder for ultra-Orthodox parties to clinch such a deal.

In response to Mr Gallant’s announcement, an official of one ultra-Orthodox coalition party told Israel’s Kan news outlet: “If Netanyahu wants to still be in power by the summer, he’ll need to OK a draft exemption law.”

During a televised address, Mr Gallant said: “We cherish and appreciate those who dedicate their lives to learning the Torah. However, without physical existence there is no spiritual existence.

“Our security challenges demonstrate that everyone must bear the burden."

Mr Gantz and Mr Eisenkot are former military chiefs and represent voters who are often angry that the ultra-Orthodox do not serve in the military.

Mr Gantz welcomed Mr Gallant’s comments, saying: “All parts of Israeli society should take part in the right to serve. This is a security, national and social need.”

The issue of ultra-Orthodox service been the subject of much discussion within Israel in recent weeks, after the military announced plans to lengthen the tenure for mandatory recruits. The military also plans to raise the age at which reservists are freed from duty, prompting a number of politicians to call on the ultra-Orthodox to do more to help the war effort.

While some ultra-Orthodox Jews do serve in special branches of the armed forces, it is a tiny proportion within the fast-growing community, whose leaders still overwhelmingly encourage men to pursue full-time religious study over military service.

Community leaders have long feared that military life draws men away from the isolated community, significant swathes of which are non-Zionist, and its strict interpretation of Judaism.

The growing row is becoming one of the most politically divisive issues since October 7, after which many of Israel’s long-time internal debates were put on hold as the country came to terms with the worst attack on home soil in its history and rallied behind the war effort.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters clashed with police in Jerusalem on Monday over the issue.

Updated: March 01, 2024, 7:24 AM