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Israel brings in military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews

June 27, 2024

Israel has introduced mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews, ending long-standing exemptions. The move has sparked significant debate within the country.

Police removing ultra-Orthodox Jews blocking a road during a protest against military conscription
Police removed ultra-Orthodox Jews blocking a road during a protest against military conscription in Jerusalem in early JuneImage: Saeed Qaq/NurPhoto/picture alliance

It is a decision of historic importance, and it has the potential to cause new domestic turmoil in Israel and to fuel a smoldering cultural conflict: The Israeli Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that ultra-Orthodox Jews are also liable for military service.

Those who refuse to do so will no longer receive state support. A legal exemption that spared ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service expired in March 2024.

Different branches of Judaism

Ultra-Orthodox Jews are known as "Charedim" in Hebrew, "Haredim" in English. Unlike Christianity, Judaism does not recognize separate denominations or confessions. However, the Jewish community does distinguish between secular and liberal, conservative, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews. These are groups and milieus that differ greatly from one another.

So who is ultra-Orthodox? The decisive factor is the extent and consistency with which the individual interprets the written and oral traditions of God's commandments. The ultra-Orthodox wing strives for a literal interpretation and then aims to consistently align its daily life with it. Prayer and living according to the commandments are strictly at the center. It is not uncommon for prominent rabbis to be at the head of individual hierarchical movements.

Gender segregation on the bus

This touches on many issues in both private and public life. For example, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem refuse to travel on the same bus as women. Accordingly, there are separate buses for men and women on the route between the Western Wall and the areas where many ultra-Orthodox Jews live.

The conflicts between strictly religious and secular Jews have occasionally grown intense. Recently, events such as the Pride Parade in Jerusalem could only take place with massive police protection.

Such confrontations are not new. In 1966, for example, the artist David Palombo died at the age of 46 when he drove his motorcycle into a metal chain that ultra-Orthodox Jews had stretched across a road to prevent traffic in their neighborhood on the Sabbath.

A group of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem
The ultra-Orthodox community is growing in IsraelImage: IMAGO/photothek

Birth rate of ultra-Orthodox Jews on the rise

Ultra-Orthodox families have a much higher birth rate than other families in Israel, and the proportion of ultra-Orthodox people in the population has been rising continuously for decades. Forty years ago it was only around 4%, today it is about 12%. In 25 years, the proportion is expected to be over 20%.

A few decades ago, only a few neighborhoods in Jerusalem were ultra-Orthodox. Tourists visited the Mea Shearim district, where they could experience a little of Orthodox everyday life. Today, the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle characterizes large parts of the city. The second most important city with an ultra-Orthodox population in Israel is Bnei Brak, northeast of Tel Aviv.

Internationally, Haredim communities can be found mainly in the United States, in the New York district of Brooklyn and in the neighboring state of New Jersey. Until the Shoah, many ultra-Orthodox Jews lived mainly in Eastern Europe. Millions were murdered in the German gas chambers during the Holocaust.

In Israeli politics today, there are parties that consistently represent the concerns of the ultra-Orthodox and have pushed through a massive expansion of religious schools in recent decades.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's current coalition, which is partly right-wing extremist, also includes the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which are now threatening to withdraw from the government.

Supreme Court for ultra-Orthodox Jews only a secular authority

Since the terrorist attack by the radical Islamist group Hamas on Israel on October 7, 2023, the threat to Israel and its military has been growing, especially on the northern border. Because the military operation in the Gaza war is continuing, the military also wants to draft ultra-Orthodox men.

Now, Israel's Supreme Court wants to ensure that politicians act accordingly, but it remains unclear what consequences this decision will have. Israel as a state has no written constitution, and for many ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Supreme Court as a secular authority ultimately has no great significance.

This article was originally written in German.

Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews resist potential military draft

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C