The leaders of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) faction have called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to immediately suspend all judicial reform legislation until the law on exempting Orthodox yeshiva students from conscription into the Israel Defense Forces is passed. Orthodox Jewish leaders have recognized in recent months that judicial reform is not necessarily in the interests of the country’s Orthodox Jews, as it has led to growing opposition to Orthodoxy in Israeli society, particularly on the issue of mandatory military service. The Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat (which I enjoy following) recently stated that judicial reform must be halted until there is a broad agreement with the opposition.
I understand the problem of the two sides very well, because there is an Orthodox branch in the extended Schneider family. None of the nine children in that part of the family went into the military, choosing instead to marry at a young age. The men only study Torah and all the other books of Jewish religious literature, and the women go to work. Two different worlds, but at family gatherings we are still one family. There have been times when my boys have gone to their cousins’ weddings in uniform and with guns. I don’t discuss the topic with my sister. Everyone serves the nation in their own way. “Your children at the front and my children are studying the Torah and praying.” That is their position and that of Jewish orthodoxy. I’ll spare myself in our private settings, but publicly this is a controversial issue. The Orthodox leadership doesn’t want to miss the opportunity, because the right-wing coalition has a majority of 64 seats. This must not be gambled away, but from their point of view it looks as if Justice Minister Yariv Levin is doing just that as he ties his legacy, and ego to the judicial reform push.
The country’s Orthodox leadership recognizes that the reform has divided Israeli society too much, and now no longer wants to support the program in parliament. Even if this results in Levin’s resignation, a move that could split Likud. The Orthodox rabbis and their members of the Knesset have very good political sense and may see that they will lose both judicial reform and the regulation of compulsory military service for their yeshiva students. Of the two, they prefer pushing forward the conscription law. If the government falls over judicial reform, the Orthodox parties have achieved nothing, so they have decided to play it safe. Netanyahu promised them that in writing when the coalition was formed.
The Ashkenazi Orthodox (represented by UTJ) plans to vote against any of the unilateral judicial reform bills Levin is pushing. They want to put pressure on Netanyahu to achieve a broader consensus. The Sephardic Shas party, on the other hand, has spoken out in favor of judicial reform. The head of the Shas party, Aryeh Deri, reiterated that he was Netanyahu’s partner and would support his overhaul of the courts.
The Orthodox parties are insisting on a new law exempting yeshiva students from military service, while including a clause prohibiting the Supreme Court of exercising judicial review. This comes in response to the fact that the Supreme Court annulled the latest version of an Orthodox draft law on military service on the grounds that it violated gender equality. The bill has been delayed more than a dozen times. The next deadline for a new law has been set for the end of March 2024. If no new law is passed by then, the army can conscript all 18-year-old Orthodox yeshiva students, just like any other Israeli.
The new proposal would lower the age for permanent exemption from 26 to 22 in exchange for promoting the integration of Orthodox Jews into national service and the labor force within their communities during those years. But this draft law has been widely criticized. Basically, one has to understand that in the eyes of the rabbis, military service is one of the two greatest dangers for young Torah students. Military service and the smartphone are the two “devils” that turn Orthodox Jews away from “the right path.” The rabbis fear losing control of the young generation, and they are right. The issue is so important in Israel that even Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah referenced it: “Israel’s army will suffer a major blow when the Knesset passes the new conscription law.”
There are also fears that the bill, as it stands, could spark a new round of protests across the country, including among the coalition’s right-wing Likud voters. At the same time, the Orthodox leaders argue that Torah study is an essential service for the nation, and even want to enshrine it in the constitution (Basic Law). However, this applies only to Orthodox Jewish and not to the religious Jewish settlers. They regard conscription as a requirement. At the behest of the Orthodox rabbis and Torah scholars, the Orthodox parties cornered Netanyahu. He now has to choose between compulsory military service for yeshiva students, or judicial reform. Either way, his government may fall, either because he refuses to regulate conscription for rabbis, or because he halts judicial reform. Netanyahu has promised to do both, but now he has to make a choice. As always in Israeli politics, anything is possible and in the end, somehow, a middle ground will be found. After all, one can’t gamble away 64 seats in the Israeli parliament.
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