The Israeli Supreme Court

Israel’s constitutional court strikes down law exempting religious students from military service
22 February 2012

The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that a law that exempts Jewish religious students from the mandatory military service is unconstitutional and can therefore not be extended after it expires next August. With six justices in favor and three against, the controversial law, called ‘Deferral of Service for Yeshiva Students for whom Torah is their Craft Law’ must be rescinded, the judges said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a new bill aiming to bring about better „sharing of the burden by all segments of Israeli society” would be drafted in the coming months. The court was petitioned by members of the Movement for Quality Government and the Meretz party.

The Knesset passed the Tal Law as a temporary measure in 2002 to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the IDF while preserving their ability to defer military service, which in Israel is compulsory for both men and women. However, exemptions are generously awarded to many religiously observant members of the Orthodox community who also enjoy a monthly state stipend during the course of their studies at Talmudic schools.

Senior military officials are concerned about the growing discrepancies, with secular Israelis shouldering the bulk of the burden and freshly-discharged troops denied similar financial benefits. Defense Minister Ehud Barak welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling on Tuesday. „The Tal Law, after ten years, did not meet expectations, nor did it lead to the required changes in all aspects concerning equally sharing the burden and expanding the number of citizens who undertake the civilian obligations,” he said. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman also hailed the ruling.

Outgoing Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch asked: „Can one say that with the passage of nine years the enlistment of 898 haredim and the joining of another 1,122 for a short, undefined national service out of a group of 61,877 constitute fulfilment of the law’s objectives? The enlistment of only 530 haredim to designated courses, nine years after the law’s legislation indicates an implementation failure. The fact that there is a rise in the number of recruits is indeed positive but is not enough. Nine years after legislation one would have expected a more substantial number of recruits. The low rate of enlistees, coupled with the relative ease with which enlistment procedures are changed, illustrate a fundamental difficulty in the law itself,” she said.

However, Asher Grunis, Beinisch’s designated successor as chief justice, supported a dissenting opinion. He expressed concern that another petition would soon be filed. „The court’s constant dealing with haredi enlistment without any real progress being achieved through judicial involvement does not contribute to the court’s standing. It would be an illusion to expect that judicial rulings bring about the enlistment of haredim to the IDF and their joining the work force.”