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Israel’s parliament advances ultra-Orthodox military conscription bill

Knesset votes to revive contentious legislation that would remove exemptions for Torah study
A general view shows the plenum during a session at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem May 13, 2015 (Reuters)
A general view shows the plenum during a session at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, 13 May 2015 (Reuters)

The Israeli parliament has approved the revival of contentious legislation that would boost military conscription among ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

Lawmakers voted 63-57 to advance the bill on Monday, which means it will now progress to committee review.

In the committee, the legislation is expected to be subject to greater scrutiny, and would need to pass second and third readings to become law.

The legislation, which was first introduced by centre-right former military chief Benny Gantz under the previous government in 2022, aims to “very slowly “ increase conscription among the ultra-Orthodox by removing exemptions from mandatory military service to study the Torah.

However, it will also lower the age of exemption from service for Torah students from 26 to 21.

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Ultra-Orthodox people of military age have been able to defer military service by enrolling in Talmudic schools or yeshivas for Torah study. The deferral must be renewed every year. At the age of 26, a full exemption from army service is granted.

Two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are important members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, and fiercely oppose the changes.

Criticism of bill

But the bill drew fierce criticism from both centrists and members of the coalition government who said that it does not go far enough to ensure an increase in conscription.

In a post on X, opposition leader Yair Lapid denounced the legislation as a “law of evasion and subordination”.

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Far-right religious parties, while opposing an expansion of conscription to include the ultra-Orthodox, backed the bill in order to include changes during the review stage.

“We have a great opportunity that should not be missed. The ultra-Orthodox public must not be pushed into a corner,” far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant opposed the bill, immediately leaving the chamber of Israel's parliament, the Knesset, after casting his vote.

The vote shortly followed the resignations of Benny Gantz and another former army chief, Gadi Eisenkot, from the war cabinet.

A day after his resignation, Gantz’s National Unity Party accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “fighting to perpetuate the [ultra-Orthodox] exemption from serving".

“It is not too late to pass a broad and comprehensive outline that will satisfy the needs of security and society,” it said in a statement.

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