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Israel's Supreme Court rules to draft ultra-Orthodox men for military service

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Israel's Supreme Court has ruled unanimously that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men for military service. It's a controversial move that could threaten the future of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, and it comes as Israel is waging a war in Gaza against Hamas and preparing for a possible second war in the North. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf is in Tel Aviv following this. Hey, Kat.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about the ruling.

LONSDORF: Yeah, so like you said, this was a unanimous ruling by Israel's nine-person Supreme Court. It said that Israel must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men into the military. And just to remind everyone, Israel has mandatory conscription for all Jewish men and women, but ultra-Orthodox men have been largely exempt for pretty much all of Israel's 70-some years of existence due to specific legislation which expired a few months ago. Ultra-Orthodox women are exempt by law.

There are some ultra-Orthodox who have joined the military by choice, but it's not a very big number. You know, the ruling also stated that any yeshiva - it's the traditional Jewish educational institution attended by ultra-Orthodox men - will not receive government funding if their students do not enlist. So there's a real economic factor here at play, too.

SHAPIRO: What makes the ruling so controversial?

LONSDORF: So generally, the ultraorthodox strongly oppose this ruling. They've been really vocal against it, saying it goes against their most fundamental religious beliefs and they need to be studying the Torah, the holy scripture of Judaism. But secular Israelis have really been pushing for this increasingly in the past eight months since Israel's war in Gaza began. The military has called up hundreds of thousands of soldiers and reservists, and more than 300 have been killed in the fight. There's pressure to call up even more to make reservists do longer rotations, for example, too.

So there's increasingly a feeling that one part of the population is shouldering a heavier burden than the other. And let's not forget, like you mentioned, you know, Israel is seriously talking about starting another war with Hezbollah in the north, which means they will need more soldiers. Hezbollah and Israel have been in a kind of low-grade war since the start of the war in Gaza, when Hezbollah fired on Israel in support of Hamas. Israel has been returning fire.

SHAPIRO: So is this going to be a dramatic change in the makeup of Israel's military?

LONSDORF: So no, probably not. Not a lot is going to change immediately. You know, I put that question to Gilad Malach. He's a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute specializing in the ultra-Orthodox community. Here's what he said.

GILAD MALACH: It doesn't mean that next year we will see 80,000 ultra-Orthodox youngsters in the army. We will see a few thousand, but it is a process that will start tomorrow.

LONSDORF: And, you know, that process includes drafting, training, testing, things that take real time. And also, there's almost sure to be pushback against this. So it doesn't mean we're going to see more ultra-Orthodox men on the frontlines in Gaza, for example, anytime soon.

SHAPIRO: And this ruling, again, came from the Supreme Court, but what does it mean for Netanyahu's government?

LONSDORF: Politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties are key to Netanyahu's governing coalition. They oppose drafting ultra-Orthodox men, and they could leave his coalition over this, possibly causing Netanyahu's government to collapse, which would trigger new elections. So, you know, that's something that everyone is watching here, especially given how perilous Netanyahu's situation is right now.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Kat Lonsdorf in Tel Aviv. Thank you.

LONSDORF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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