For over 40 years, the justices of the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, have been forced to deal with one of Israel’s greatest problems, the question of whether full-time yeshiva students should be drafted into the military. As with other matters, the politicians have found it convenient to lay this difficult task, which goes beyond purely legal issues, at the court’s doorstep and to tackle it themselves only when left with no choice.
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The High Court struck down the exemption for yeshiva students twice in the past: in 1998, when it ruled that the defense minister was not authorized to grant a sweeping exemption to the ultra-Orthodox, and in 2012, after a decade of failure in implementing the Tal Law. The court acted in the name of the principle of equality, and its decisions set in motion powerful processes that affected the political agenda and awakening a fierce public debate over “sharing the burden” and “discrimination between blood and blood.”
On Tuesday, nine justices decided, voting eight to one, to strike down the exemption for yeshiva students that was passed by the Knesset in 2015 as an amendment to the Defense Service Law. The 2015 amendment revoked a 2014 amendment that reduced the scope of draft evasion.
The court ruled after repeatedly giving the legislative branch the opportunity to reduce the discrimination regarding compulsory military and national service. It said the abrogation of the law would go into effect only in another year, in order to allow sufficient time to draw up and pass new legislation that complied with the verdict.
In response to the ruling, representatives of the ultra-Orthodox parties denounced the court. In other parties in the governing coalition, too, there are growing calls to limit the High Court’s authority to interfere with laws passed by the Knesset using legislation. Beyond the hypocrisy of such calls — the court is only acting due to the inaction of other authorities — they reflect a genuine threat not just to the Supreme Court but to the country’s entire democratic fabric, which is in a fragile state as it is.
Parties such as Habayit Hayehudi have already declared war on the judicial authorities, especially the Supreme Court. The addition of the ultra-Orthodox parties to such threats signifies a real danger to the system’s foundations. This is a direct threat against the justices — should they dare to rule in a way that is not to the government’s liking, they can expect to have their wings clipped. It is a threat to Israeli society as a whole, to every individual and to every group within it, to close the gates of the only institution that safeguards human and civil rights versus the government’s destructive polices and increasingly extremist attitudes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu mustn’t lend a hand to what would be a mortal blow to Israeli democracy, merely in the shortsighted interest of political survival.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.