Plan to end ultra-Orthodox students’ military exemption sparks row in Israel

A proposed bill to extend compulsory military service to ultra-Orthodox students, historically exempt from conscription, has ignited a fierce debate in Israel, with Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly warning that failure to pass the law could jeopardise the stability of the government.

It envisages ultra-Orthodox battalions in the Israel Defense Forces but does not set an annual quota for the enlistment of Haredi men.

The law, which will be discussed by ministers on Tuesday, has ignited a contentious debate in Israel. The prime minister has informed ministers in his Likud party that he is standing firm while Benny Gantz, a political rival of Netanyahu, has declared his willingness to resign from the emergency unity government if the law is approved, calling it a political compromise rather than a conscription solution for all society.

The proposal has been rejected by most Haredi people and their leaders, who say “no Haredi will enlist and no Haredi will risk his life”, arguing that the proposal discriminates and undermines the unity of the community, ultimately fostering “hatred and alienation”.

In his weekly Saturday night sermon, Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, said Haredim would leave Israel en masse if their exemption from compulsory service was not renewed.

“If you force us to go to the army, we’ll all move abroad,” he said. “The state exists on Torah study, and without the Torah, there would have been no success for the army.”

“I will never join the army,” said Yankev Frank, 22. “Our religion doesn’t allow us to join the army. I would rather go to jail than join the army. If they tell me to do something that goes against my religion, I would prefer to go to prison. If we join the army, we will be forced to do things that go against our religion.”