Middle EastAnalysis

Ultra-Orthodox Jews must be drafted into army, Israel court rules

Two ultra-Orthodox parties are members of Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition and have threatened to quit the government if their community is drafted

A ultra-Orthodox Jewish man at the Israeli army recruitment office. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

Israel’s high court ruled unanimously on Tuesday that ultra-Orthodox Jews must be drafted into the army and that yeshiva religious seminaries should not receive government funding if their students do not enlist.

The extended panel of nine justices stated that “in the midst of a gruelling war, the burden of inequality is harsher than ever and demands a solution”. When many soldiers are sacrificing their lives, “discrimination regarding the most precious thing of all – life itself – is of the worst kind”, the justices said.

Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties are members of Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition and have repeatedly threatened to quit the government if their community is drafted.

Israeli males at the age of 18 are drafted to the army for three years of compulsory military service and can then be called up for reserve duty, usually for about one month each year, until age 40; women are drafted for two years.


Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, in 1948 agreed to exempt the ultra-Orthodox from the draft after the vast majority of the community in Europe was wiped out in the Nazi Holocaust. Over decades, successive governments have let the exemption stand, and 15 court rulings telling the government to legislate on the question have been ignored.

The Gaza war led to a sharp change in public opinion and to a growing demand for all sections of Israeli society to share the burden. The ongoing war has created an unprecedented strain and the army says it is short of 5,000 soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have received emergency military call-up orders since the Hamas attack on October 7th and some are now on their third stint of reserve duty, either in Gaza or on the northern border with Lebanon.

More than 60,000 ultra-Orthodox men of military age are exempt from the draft and the number grows each year due to the high birth rate in the community. The court did not state how many must be drafted immediately, leaving it for the army and the government to decide, and the process is liable to be gradual. Many of the yeshiva students will not be capable of filling combat or technology positions.

Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum welcomed the court decision, urging the ultra-Orthodox to accept the landmark ruling. But ultra-Orthodox leaders argued that yeshiva students contribute to Israel’s security by Torah (Bible) study no less than the soldiers at the front.

Housing minister Yitzhak Goldknopf of the United Torah Judaism party said Israel was created to be a home for the Jewish people, and the Torah was the cornerstone of its existence. The holy Torah would win, he said.