Israeli Supreme Court orders government to stop funding religious schools that defy enlistment, in blow to Netanyahu

The Israeli Supreme Court on Thursday ordered the government to stop funding religious schools whose students defy the country’s mandatory military service, posing one of the most serious threats to date for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have long held a privileged position in Israel, with their schools receiving generous government subsidies. The young men of the Haredim, as they are known in Hebrew, are in all practical terms exempt from mandatory military services – an issue that has bedeviled Israeli society since the country’s founding.

The debate has grown more fierce since Israel launched its invasion of Gaza in response to Hamas’ October 7 terror attack, which has put the country on a war footing for nearly six months with the prospect of more to come.

Netanyahu relies on two Ultra-Orthodox parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – to maintain a governing coalition. His wartime cabinet partners – Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz, of the National Unity Party – have been heavily critical of Netanyahu’s approach to the issue of Ultra-Orthodox conscription.

“The judges of the High Court of Justice want to saw off the branch of existence of the Jewish people,” Ariyeh Deri, leader of the Shas party, said in a statement on X. “The people of Israel are engaged in a war of existence on several fronts and the High Court of Justice judges did everything tonight to create a fratricidal war as well.”

In Israel’s nascent days, its first prime minister David Ben-Gurion agreed with Haredi rabbis to exempt from military service 400 men studying in religious schools, known as yeshivas.

The exemption, made in 1948, came when there were few Haredim in Israel – as many were and remain opposed to the state on religious grounds – and so had little practical impact. But the Haredi community has since swelled, now comprising 24% of recruitment-aged Israelis, making the issue of exemption thornier.

The exemption was never enshrined in a law that the Supreme Court views as equitable. In 1998, it ripped up the longstanding exemption on the grounds that it violated equal protection principles. In the years since it has only been upheld by patch-work government mandates.

The most recent mandate, signed in 2018, is set to expire on March 31, despite Netanyahu’s attempts this week to delay the Supreme Court’s deadline to pass a law that would make the exemption official.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem, March 17, 2024. - Leo Correa/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference in Jerusalem, March 17, 2024. - Leo Correa/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

But his efforts were unsuccessful. After decades of rulings on the subject, the Supreme Court told the government that it was illegal for the government to both fund yeshivas and exempt their students from conscription. In a ruling late Thursday, the Supreme Court said that starting on April 1, the government could no longer transfer funds to yeshivas whose students did not receive legitimate deferments.

Yitzhak Goldknopf, leader of the United Torah Judaism party, called the ruling “a sign of disgrace and contempt.”

“The State of Israel arose to be a home for the Jewish people whose Torah is true Torah, and there is no power in the world that can do it,” he said. “Without the Torah, we have no right to exist.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews view religious study as fundamental to the preservation of Judaism. For many of those who live in Israel, that means study is just as important to Israel’s defense as the military.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday, Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI), told CNN the exemption issue “has the biggest potential of bringing down the coalition.”

Gantz, of the National Unity Party, said that the court “ruled the obvious today. The time has come for the government to do the obvious. It’s time for action.”

Gantz has in recent months emerged as Netanyahu’s most formidable political opponent, and earlier this month made an unsanctioned trip to Washington, DC – to Netanyahu’s immense ire – to meet with US Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The top Biden administration officials told Gantz the situation in Gaza was “unacceptable and unsustainable” and demanded more be done to allow aid to enter the enclave, which is edging closer to famine.

This is story has been updated with further developments.

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