Netanyahu coalition in crisis over religious draft as war rages – Hartford Courant

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Ethan Bronner, Galit Altstein | Bloomberg News (TNS)

A dramatic Israeli Supreme Court ruling that freezes funding to ultra-Orthodox seminaries unless their students serve in the military is forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to contend with its survival as the war in Gaza deepens the country’s political divisions.

Ultra-Orthodox parties in the ruling coalition, who’d been assured that their decades-long immunity from conscription would be made permanent, were in a rage, calling the decision “a mark of Cain” and threatening to exit. Those in the center who joined the war cabinet last October backed the court, citing the need for more military manpower as Israel faces threats not only from Hamas in Gaza but also from Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Since the war, the burden of carrying the ultra-Orthodox has become unbearable for large majorities of Israelis who see their abstention from military service as unfair and a drain on the economy. In essence, the two Israeli crises of the past year — mass protests over the government’s plans to weaken judicial independence and the war in Gaza — have converged into the ultimate test for Netanyahu.

“The issue isn’t the Supreme Court,” said Benny Gantz, an opposition leader and war cabinet member who’s polling far ahead of Netanyahu. “The issue is our need for soldiers during a difficult war and our society’s need for everyone to take part in the privilege of serving the country.”

Fifteen months ago, Netanyahu formed the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history, promising the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, that he would cement their immunity from conscription.

His government then moved to weaken the high court, saying its liberal justices were overstepping their authority when they ruled, among other things, that the Haredi exemption violated the constitutional mandate of equality.

Thursday’s decision means that hundreds of religious academies, or yeshivas, will lose a significant portion of their funding, with some seeing as much as 50% of their budget vanish from Monday. The interim ruling could change in May when a larger group of justices takes up the case, but its impact will be felt immediately.

Many Israelis have long resented the exemption not only because Haredim don’t share the security burden, but also because their yeshivas receive government subsidies, permitting many of their men to study religious texts rather than work.

Haredim — some 13% of the Israeli population of almost 10 million and growing rapidly — live a cloistered life of poverty, prayer and study in large families. They believe religious study contributes far more to Israel’s safety than military service, and also fear their young men, if exposed to secular society, will leave the fold.

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