Contentious Draft Exemption for ultra-Orthodox to Be Annulled, Israel's Top Court Rules

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
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The IDF recruitment bureau in Jerusalem, 2019.
The IDF recruitment bureau in Jerusalem, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

The law exempting yeshiva students from army service will be annulled on February 1, 2021, the High Court of Justice ruled on Tuesday, in a decision that risks reviving a political crisis that has led Israel to election in 2018.

The law was initially struck down by the High Court three years ago, and so far it has accepted requests by the state to delay implementation of the ruling. In Tuesday's decision, the court informed the state that no more extensions would be granted.

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According to the law, the moment the exemption for yeshiva students is cancelled, they will be eligible to be drafted.

Last week, the High Court department in the state prosecutor’s office filed a request for a six-month delay in implementing the law, in order to pass new legislation. The state prosecutor’s office explained that its request stemmed from the fact that the government and the Knesset were busy dealing with the coronavirus and would not be able to pass new legislation on the matter.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated in the same document that the legislation should be passed as soon as possible that “half a year was too long.” 

In September 2017, the High Court struck down the draft exemption law for yeshiva students, and ordered it to be rescinded within one year. The court discussed the law at that time with an expanded panel of nine justices headed by former Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, and ruled to abolish it with only one dissenting vote.

The justices examined the numbers presented at the time, which revealed that in the years for which figures were available, and when the exemption was in effect, fewer yeshiva students reported for the draft or for alternative national civilian service. According to the figures, the number of ultra-Orthodox draftees was much smaller and far from showing the significant change required. The aspiration to meet the quotas defined by law, the justices ruled, was only growing more distant as time passed.

After the High Court struck down the law, the Defense Ministry and the army worked on a new law. But opposition by the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism created a political rift with Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, who staunchly supported the conscription law, leading to the dissolution of the Knesset in December 2018 and new elections in April 2019. 

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