With its soldiers mired in Gaza, Israel fights a battle at home over drafting the ultra-Orthodox

JERUSALEM (AP) — As Israel battles a prolonged war in Gaza, broad exemptions from mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox men have reopened a deep divide in the country and rattled the government coalition, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fellow War Cabinet members staunchly opposed to his proposed new conscription law.

By the end of the month, Israel’s governme nt must present legislation aimed at increasing recruitment among the religious community. As the deadline approaches, public discourse has grown increasingly toxic — a departure from demonstrations of unity early in the war.

Netanyahu’s government so far has survived the public angst sparked by Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that ignited the war, but the draft issue has put him in a bind. The collapse of the three-member War Cabinet would undermine the country’s stability at a sensitive time in the fighting. But a loss of the ultra-Orthodox parties would bring down his broader governing coalition and plunge the country into new elections as he and his Likud party are badly trailing in opinion polls.

“Politically, this is one of the most concrete threats to the government,” said Gilad Malach, an expert on the ultra-Orthodox at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Most Jewish men are required to serve nearly three years 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 if they are studying full-time in religious seminaries. The exemptions — and the government stipends many seminary students receive through age 26 — have infuriated the wider general public.

The Supreme Court has ruled the current system discriminatory and given the government until April 1 to present a bill and until June 30 to pass it.

Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz — who with Netanyahu comprise the War Cabinet — say the prime minister’s proposed law doesn’t go far enough toward increasing the number of ultra-Orthodox who will join the army. Critics say some aspects, such as raising the age for exemption, could even depress the numbers.

Gantz, Netanyahu’s top political rival, said he’d leave the Cabinet if the enlistment law is weakened or fails to pass by the deadline. Defense Minister Gallant said he’d support a new law only with the support of Gantz and more centrist members of the country’s emergency wartime government.

The government is composed of ultra-Orthodox and religious ultranationalist parties who were joined in the early days of the war by a faction led by former military generals, including Gantz. The union was meant as a show of unity in the aftermath of Oct. 7, but the parties differ widely on the issue of conscription.

After Hamas’ attack, Israel activated 360,000 reservists, its largest mobilization since the 1973 Mideast war. Many have since been released but will be expected to return to active duty in coming months. The increased reserve duty and talk of lengthening mandatory service have deepened public anger.

Among Israel’s Jewish majority, mandatory military service is largely seen as a melting pot and rite of passage. 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.

“We prefer dying to serving in the Israeli army,” said Yona Kruskal, 42, a father of 11 and full-time seminary student, as he blocked traffic in Jerusalem with about 200 others last week in one of the frequent protests against the conscription law. “There’s no way you can force us to go to the army, because we are hell-bent that the army and religion contradict one another.”

As the ultra-Orthodox scuffled with police at the protest, other Israelis berated them, chanting “Shame! Shame!”

“My friends are sitting in Gaza while you’re here, sitting on the ground,” one man yelled. A woman screamed at the protesters that her son was serving in Gaza to protect them.

Oren Shvill, a founder of Brothers in Arms, a protest group representing reserve soldiers who oppose Netanyahu, said the ultra-Orthodox are benefitting from the army’s protection without participating. “There’s one law for everyone, and it should be enforced equally,” he said.

Economists say the system is unsustainable. With its high birthrate, the ultra-Orthodox community is the fastest-growing segment of the population, at about 4% annually. Each year, roughly 13,000 ultra-Orthodox males reach the conscription age of 18, but less than 10% enlist, according to the Israeli parliament’s State Control Committee, which recently held a hearing on the matter.

“One of the things that in the past was debatable and now is much more clear is that we need more soldiers,” said Yoaz Hendel, a former Netanyahu aide and Cabinet minister who just finished four months of reserve duty as commander of a special forces unit. He said the burden of service should be shared equally among all sectors of the population.

The shock of the Oct. 7 attack appeared to ignite some enthusiasm among the ultra-Orthodox to serve, but no large enlistment materialized, according to Israeli media. The army declined to comment on the ultra-Orthodox enlistment rate.

The debate has long divided Israel, and a string of court decisions have repeatedly found the system unjust. But Israeli leaders, under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties, have repeatedly stalled. It remains unclear whether Netanyahu will be able to do so again.

The rift over exemptions was exacerbated last year when Netanyahu’s government pressed ahead with an overhaul of the legal system supported by ultra-Orthodox governing partners who sought to override court decisions on conscription. The government froze the overhaul after the war broke out.

The army has attempted to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox by creating separate units that allow them to maintain religious practices, including minimizing interaction with women.

Ephraim Luff, 65, a full-time seminary student in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, dismissed such efforts, saying the men who enlist in these units are not “real Haredim,” as the ultra-Orthodox are known in Hebrew.

“The army is the final stage of Israeli education to make people into secular Israelis and to disconnect them from their Jewish heritage,” said Luff, who described how one of his eight children “strayed from the path” of full-time learning and served in the army as a truck driver for a year and a half.

One of the country’s two chief rabbis, Yitzhak Yosef, said this month that the ultra-Orthodox “will all move abroad” if forced to enlist. The comment drew both condemnation, for encouraging Israelis to leave during a national crisis, and ridicule, because many secular Israelis would have no problem with the ultra-Orthodox leaving en masse, said the Israel Democracy Institute’s Malach.

On the contrary, the ultra-Orthodox leadership’s unwillingness to compromise even as other parts of Israeli society make significant sacrifices has alienated more of the public, Malach said.

“In this government, I don’t see a real opportunity for change,” he said. “But if there are elections and there is a coalition without haredim or with weakened haredim, there could be a change.”

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