IDF Draft controversy renews pressure to muzzle the Supreme Court

Drafting Haredi yeshiva students is an ages-old controversy, which is reignited every few years, stirring up the political arena. The new challenge that has emerged, as was the case in the past, has come from the Supreme Court. From the Haredi perspective, the Supreme Court is the culprit and the only obstacle standing in the way of fully attaining their extortionist demands.

It was Israel’s first President Chaim Weizmann who foresaw the ensuing existential battle over the unholy alliance of religion and politics. He wrote in 1947: “There are powerful religious communities in Palestine that now, under a democratic regime, will rightly demand to assert themselves. I think it is our duty to make it clear to them from the beginning that whereas the state will treat the true religious feelings of the community with the highest respect, it cannot turn the clock back to making religion the cardinal principle in the conduct of the state… it shall not control the ministries of state…. There will be a great struggle… I foresee something which will be perhaps reminiscent of the Kulturkampf in Germany, but we must be firm if we are to survive.”

As many who follow Israel’s political life know, cries of “wolf, wolf!” foretelling of the government’s imminent collapse are common. Most of these are averted at the last minute either by the coalition government surrendering to the demands of those who hold a gun to their temples; by use of delay tactics (usually by the appointment of a committee to study the issue at hand); or by reaching a creative compromise. Two such crises are on the horizon now.

One involves the conversion bill, which we addressed just recently. This week, the Supreme Court has handed Netanyahu some relief by agreeing to a six month postponement of the date the State is required to submit its response to pending petitions involving non-Orthodox conversions. These pending petitions and the anticipated ruling in support of these converts prompted the ultimatum from the Shas party, demanding that a conversion law be passed to preempt this court ruling.

The second crisis involves the draft bill. Much like “Who is a Jew,” drafting Haredi yeshiva students is an ages-old controversy, which is reignited every few years, stirring up the political arena. In recent years, it was the 2013-2015 government coalition under pressure from the Yesh Atid party, which legislated a new draft bill, causing upheaval. It was summarily undone once the 2015 coalition was in place due to the Haredi parties’ demands. Every sanction and move towards religious freedom and equality advanced by the previous government were obliterated. The new government met the Haredi demands that no yeshiva student who refused to enlist would be forced to do so, and that no real sanctions would be applied any time soon to either the individuals who dodge the draft or the Yeshivas that provide them with shelter.

The new challenge that emerged, as was the case in the past, came from the Supreme Court. It accepted petitions to nullify the new draft bill on constitutional grounds for presenting too serious a breach of the principle of equality. The Court declared the new law to be null and void, setting a date for a year henceforth for its ruling to take effect. That year ends in September 2018, and the race was on to find a new solution.

And so, with delay tactics having been exhausted, with no plausible creative compromise on the horizon, and with the realization that even extremely willing political operators would not be able to withstand constitutional-judicial review, came the ominous initiative to castrate the Supreme Court. From the Haredi perspective, the Supreme Court is the culprit and the only obstacle standing in the way of fully attaining their extortionist demands. Their mindset happens to coincide with parallel frustrations on the part of some extreme right-wing political circles; the two have joined forces to bring the Supreme Court to its knees. This was the genesis of the “override clause” initiative, aimed at enabling political machinations to override Supreme Court rulings via counter-legislation. As expected, this is now back on the table.

The head of United Torah Judaism faction in the Knesset (the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi party), MK Mozes stated this week that “The Council of the Great [Ones] of the Torah of Agudat Yisrael has decided unequivocally not to allow the [new] bill to pass. If it does, we will leave the government and the coalition… If there was the ‘override clause’ we wouldn’t be in this situation… [we should] return to our original bill and add the override clause to it… the IDF does not decide how many students will enlist from one high school or another so I don’t understand the claim that the IDF should be the one to decide how many [yeshiva students] will enlist, rather than the rabbis. Since when are the yeshivas tasked with providing soldiers for the IDF?”

About the Author
Rabbi Uri Regev is one of Israel’s most prominent advocates for religious freedom. He currently serves as president of Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel.
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