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Israeli Knesset greenlights extension of ultra-Orthodox exemption from military amid vocal criticism

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset members attend a plenum session and a vote on reviving the ultra-Orthodox enlistment bill at the Knesset assembly hall in Jerusalem, June 11, 2024. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israeli Knesset approved on Tuesday the extension of the controversial bill that exempts young ultra-Orthodox men from serving in the Israeli military on religious grounds. The Knesset members decided to extend the exemption in a 63-57 vote. In order to become law, the legislation must also pass a second and third reading.

Military exemption for eligible ultra-Orthodox men has become a very divisive political issue in Israeli society where service is mandatory for most of the Jewish majority population. The new legislation is in favor of eventually lowering the exemption age for Haredi students from 26 to 21. The long-term goal is reportedly to “very slowly” increase the rate of ultra-Orthodox men being enlisted into Israel Defense Forces.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant voted against the legislation, which he described as “petty politics.”

“The people of Israel long for agreements – national changes are carried out with broad agreement,” Gallant wrote on 𝕏. “We must not engage in petty politics at the expense of IDF soldiers,” the defense minister added.

The political opposition also condemned the extension of the controversial legislation.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid blasted the legislation as “one of the most despicable moments of humiliation of the Israeli Knesset ever.”

“In the midst of another day of hard fighting in the Gaza Strip, the reckless government passes a law of evasion and insubordination. It’s all politics. Zero values,” Lapid stated.

Due to high birth rates, the ultra-Orthodox population is the fastest-growing segment in Israeli society and is expected to comprise roughly 16% of the total population by 2030. While a minority of ultra-Orthodox men over the age of 18 serve in the IDF, the vast majority have not due to various religious, political and social reasons.

In late March, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled to stop funding ultra-Orthodox students who are eligible for IDF service. At the time, former War Cabinet minister, Benny Gantz, backed the court’s decision by emphasizing the need for more IDF soldiers amid a complex war on various fronts.

“The issue is not the High Court of Justice or the prosecutor who does her job faithfully, but our need for soldiers during a difficult war, and the need of our society for everyone to take part in the right to serve the country,” Gantz stated. “The High Court ruled the obvious today, the time has come for the government to do the obvious. It’s time for action.”

The coalition government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu depends on continued support from the ultra-Orthodox political parties, which are firmly opposed to military service for ultra-Orthodox men.

Following the Hamas terror attack on Israel on Oct. 7, there was a dramatic increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox Israelis who wanted to enlist in the IDF. However, there are strong social pressures within the ultra-Orthodox society against military service.

In March, Israel's Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef cautioned that many ultra-Orthodox Israelis would consider emigrating if subjected to a compulsory military draft.

"If they force us to join the army, we will all move abroad," Yosef claimed. "We will buy tickets; there is no such thing as forcing us into the army. The state stands on this," he added.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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