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Deadline looms in Israel's ultra-Orthodox conscription row

Ultra-orthodox Jews protest in Jerusalem on March 18 against conscription
— Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's decades-old exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews is poised to end Monday, a divisive move that imperils the coalition government as the nation is at war with Hamas.

Barring a last-minute delay, ultra-Orthodox Israelis would for the first time be subject to the mandatory service that is compulsory for nearly all other Jewish men in Israel.

The issue carries significant implications because the ultra-Orthodox allies that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has depended on in his government are fiercely opposed to conscription for their community.

Their departure would bring down the coalition.

Drafting of ultra-Orthodox men has long been a divisive issue in Israeli politics, precipitating a protracted crisis that saw five parliamentary elections in under four years.

Netanyahu sought a 30-day delay to allow time to come up with an agreement within his government on the issue that has been the subject of years of debate in the halls of power and among the public.

The supreme court's most recent ruling on the conscription issue was an interim decision last week saying that Jewish seminaries would lose funding if students without deferrals or exemptions did not report for military service.

The key question is what will happen from Monday, if nothing gets in the way of the deadline.

The ultra-Orthodox students can in theory be called to do their military service, said Yair Ettinger, expert in religious affairs for the public channel Kan 11.

"But the police are not going to come and arrest them because declaring them deserters will take time, and the court must rule on this question," he said.

"The ultra-Orthodox leaders want a new law to ensure that their students are not forced into the army, but it will not be easy either politically or legally," added Ettinger.

While Israel has been at war against the Palestinian militants in Gaza for almost six months, the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews from mandatory service has been increasingly criticised.

According to a recent poll, 70 percent of the country's Jewish population believes that ultra-Orthodox Jews should, like others, contribute to the country's security and do their military service.

Nearly 600 soldiers have been killed in the fighting since the start of the war, including 254 in the Gaza Strip, and more than 3,000 have been wounded, according to the Israeli army.

- Ultra-Orthodox women exempt -

Military service is obligatory for young Israelis -- 32 months for men, and two years for women.

But almost all the ultra-Orthodox have been able to avoid it, with 66,000 members of the community excused from military service last year alone.

Jewish men who study the Torah full-time in seminaries have long been granted an annual deferment from military service until the age of 26, at which point they become exempt.

Young ultra-Orthodox women are automatically exempt.

The exemptions date from Israel's founding in 1948, and were meant to allow a group of 400 young people to study sacred texts and preserve Jewish traditions put at risk by the Holocaust.

The state of mind of the ultra-Orthodox world could be summed up in comments on Thursday from influential ultra-Orthodox politician Moshe Gafni.

"I pray with all Jewish people for the soldiers at the front, but without the study of the Torah, the Jewish people have no future," he said.

According to local media, Netanyahu is trying to reassure his ultra-Orthodox allies by promising a bill before the budgets allocated to Talmudic schools are frozen.

The law allowing the young men's exemption was invalidated in 2012 by the supreme court which demanded a new law, but successive governments and ultra-Orthodox parties have always concluded provisional agreements, never managing to agree.

In May 2023, the government passed an unprecedented budget of about $1 billion (3.7 billion shekels) for Talmudic schools.

Since the age limit for joining the army is 26, they will be deprived of around 500 million shekels, the amount allocated to students aged 18 to 26.

Today, the ultra-Orthodox number 1.3 million people, according to the Israel Democracy Institute -- bolstered by a fertility rate of more than six children per woman, which far exceeds the national average of 2.5.

Most ultra-Orthodox want the exemptions to be extended to all religious students, saying that military service is incompatible with their values.