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Israel's Supreme Court rules that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men


Israel's Supreme Court has ruled that ultra-Orthodox Jewish men will no longer be exempt from military service. This was a unanimous decision which upended a long-standing norm despite warnings from government lawyers that forcing the enlistment of these men would, quote, "tear Israeli society apart." Our next guest is following all of this and its implications for democracy in Israel. Yohanan Plesner is president of a think tank called the Israel Democracy Institute and is in Jerusalem. Welcome to the program, sir.

YOHANAN PLESNER: Hello. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand the basics here. There's compulsory military service for most people in Israel. But, under the law, ultra-Orthodox Jewish men have been exempted from this service. So what was the court's constitutional legal basis for saying, no, actually, you have to serve like everybody else?

PLESNER: Well, everything that you said is right except the three words, under the law.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Go on.

PLESNER: Basically (laughter) - basically, the Supreme Court unanimously determined - conservative and liberal judges - judges that come from different schools of thought - they all unanimously said that the government has no legal underpinning - has no legal foundation for its attempt to provide blanket exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox community. Now, one has to take into account, it's - about a quarter of the cohort of men that are supposed to serve are from the ultra-Orthodox community. And the practice was to provide them an exemption from service. But, de facto, there's only one law in the land, and the law says that all Israelis must serve.

So the Supreme Court basically said the practice of providing a de facto exemption is no longer legally valid. If you want to provide an exemption, the court tells the Israeli parliament - the Knesset - you should legislate an exemption. And obviously, it should comply with constitutional values and mainly with the principle of equality. But short of the Knesset legislating something else, the IDF - the Israeli military - should apply the law equally.

INSKEEP: I'm amazed to learn this detail. You're telling me that this was a custom, a norm, a practice, a tradition - but the legislature, the Knesset, had never actually said, you are exempt?

PLESNER: Yeah. Well, I - you know, it's so complicated. It's our Israeli version of identity politics. You know, take the American - questions that American society is all in major dispute around - this is the Israeli version, the question of recruitment, and it's been following us since the foundation of the state. But in 1998, the Supreme Court said if you determined that the Knesset needs to legislate a proper bill - an exemption bill - because the military can no longer conduct the practice of just providing an exemption for a huge sector - the Knesset was not able to successfully legislate a bill that would comply with basic demands of the Supreme Court for the principle of equality. So there were a few attempts since '98, but a couple of them back in 2012 and in 2017 were annulled by the court. And since 2017, the Knesset was never able to come up with something else and just asked for additional extensions from the court.

INSKEEP: What does this mean for Israeli society?

PLESNER: Well, there are substantive implications, and there are political repercussions. Substantively, it means that, for the first time in the country's history, again, unless the parliament comes up with an alternative legislation...


PLESNER: ...For the first time, the IDF has to recruit, equally, all Israeli men. It doesn't apply to ultra-Orthodox women. Now, for the ultra-Orthodox community, the main fear of being recruited is that it will drop down the walls of, quote-unquote, "the ghetto" - the autonomy of the ultra-Orthodox community and sort of meet other Israelis and then be integrated to Israeli society. It's not going to happen in a day, but this is the first time that the IDF is getting a clear instruction from the court - you have to go ahead and integrate them. And, of course, now, Israel - there's a security requirement that Israel actually needs...


PLESNER: ...Additional troops.

INSKEEP: Well, there's a war going on, obviously.

PLESNER: Exactly.

INSKEEP: We've just got about 10 seconds left here, but is there any indication that ultra-Orthodox men are going to protest or refuse?

PLESNER: Of course. There are going to be protests. Many will refuse. There will be political repercussions, but there's no indication that it will mean that the Knesset will dissolve tomorrow morning or in the next month. But if this will continue, it will probably, within months, bring down the government.

INSKEEP: Yohanan Plesner is president of the Israel Democracy Institute. Thanks for your insights.

PLESNER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.