Could Drafting Ultra-OrthodoxYouth Bring Down Israel’s Government?

It’s a venerable Jewish joke: a Jew falls off a ship, in mid-ocean, and swims to an uninhabited island. Years later, his SOS signal is spotted. When rescuers arrive, they find he has managed to construct three small buildings from flotsam and jetsam: a small cabin, and two identical synagogues.

“Why two?” He was asked. The answer is immediate:

This one,” he points to the right “is where I go to pray each Shabbos.”

”And the other?”

He snorts. “Why do you ask? That’s the one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”

Intra-communal controversy and sectarianism are persistent features of Jewish populations, and in this respect, the state of Israel is no exception. And the divide between a strongly Jewish-identified but non-observant majority and a rapidly growing ultra-orthodox minority, known as haredim, is a continuing source of tension.

Now, as this report indicates, the Gaza war may be ratcheting the tensions toward crisis levels, with a focal point being the military draft. In Israel, the draft extends far beyond any form of conscription in the USA, including both women and men, and lasting for longer periods.

But there are exceptions to it— and there’s the rub:

AP News: Israel’s high court says the government must stop funding seminaries. Could that topple Netanyahu?

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israels Supreme Court ruling curtailing subsidies for ultraOrthodox men has rattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus governing coalition and raised questions about its viability as the country presses on with the war in Gaza.

Netanyahu has until Monday to present the court with a plan to dismantle what the justices called a system that privileges the ultraOrthodox at the expense of the secular Jewish public.

If that plan alienates the ultraOrthodox lawmakers on whose support he depends, his coalition could disintegrate and the country could be forced to hold new elections.

Heres a breakdown of the decision and what it might spell for the future of Israeli politics.


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 ultraOrthodox, who make up roughly 13% of Israeli society, have traditionally received exemptions while studying full time in religious seminaries, or yeshivas.

This yearsold system has bred widespread resentment among the broader public — a feeling that has deepened during nearly six months of war. More than 500 soldiers have been killed in fighting, and tens of thousands of Israelis have had their careers, studies and family lives disrupted because of reserve duty.

The Supreme Court ruled that the current system is discriminatory and gave the government until Monday to present a new plan, and until June 30 to pass one. Netanyahu asked the court Thursday for a 30day 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 of enlistment age who have not received a deferral from the army. Those funds will be frozen starting Monday.

While the loss of state subsidies is certainly a blow, it appears the yeshivas can continue to function. Israel’s Channel 12 reported Friday that the state provides only 7.5% of all funding for the institutions. Netanyahus coalition could also search for discretionary funds to cover the gaps.


Many Israelis are celebrating the courts decision, believing it spells an end to a system that takes for granted their military service and economic contributions while advantaging the ultraOrthodox, or Haredim as they are called in Israel.

The religious exemption dates back to Israel’s founding, a compromise that the countrys first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, made with ultraorthodox leaders to allow some 400 yeshiva students to devote themselves fully to Torah study. But what was once a fringe Haredi population has grown precipitously, making the exemption a hugely divisive issue to Israeli society.

Many ultraOrthodox continue to receive government stipends into adulthood, eschewing getting paying jobs to instead continue fulltime religious studies. Economists have long warned the system is unsustainable.

“The next government will have to hold a long overdue conversation about the future of the Haredi relationship to the state, commentator Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Israels leftleaning daily, Haaretz.

“Now, the Haredim will have no choice but to take part in it. It won’t be just about the national service of its young men, it will also have to address fundamental questions about education and employment,” he said.

UltraOrthodox leaders have reacted angrily.

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

The ultraOrthodox say that integrating into the army will threaten their generationsold way of life, and that their devout lifestyle and dedication to upholding the Jewish commandments protect Israel as much as a strong army. Although a small number have opted to serve in the military, many have vowed to fight any attempt to compel Haredim to do so.

“Without the Torah, we have no right to exist, said Yitzchak Goldknopf, leader of the ultraOrthodox party United Torah Judaism. We will fight in every way over the right of every Jew to study Torah and we won’t compromise on that.”


Netanyahu, Israels longestserving prime minister, is known as a master political survivor. But his room for maneuver is limited.

Vowing to press forward with a war that has harmed the Israeli economy and asked much of its soldiers and reservists, Netanyahu could lose the support of the more centrist elements of his fragile national unity government if he tries to preserve the exemptions for the ultraOrthodox.

The two centrists in his fragile War Cabinet, both former generals, have insisted that all sectors of Israeli society contribute equally. One, Benny Gantz, has threatened to quit — a step that would destabilize a key decisionmaking body at a sensitive time in the war.

But the powerful bloc of ultraOrthodox parties — longtime partners of Netanyahu — want draft exemptions to continue.

The ultraOrthodox parties have not said what they will do if they lose their preferential status. But if they decide to leave the government, the coalition would almost certainly collapse and the country could be forced into new elections, with Netanyahu trailing significantly in the polls amid the war

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