High Court Enters Debate on Yeshiva Draft Deferrals

A controversy involving Israel’s secular and religious populations is being played out in the country’s highest court.

An expanded panel of 11 judges on the High Court of Justice convened Tuesday to consider a petition seeking a limit on draft deferments granted to fervently Orthodox yeshiva students.

The petition maintains that the deferments, instituted in the early years of the state, are being exploited to the point where Israel’s defense is endangered and the burden of compulsory service is unfairly carried by the rest of the population.

With the exception of those who receive deferrals, Israeli youths are drafted into the army at the age of 18.

According to the petition — filed by Knesset members Amnon Rubinstein and Chaim Oron, both of the secularist Meretz Party — the number of deferrals granted yearly has grown from several hundred to several thousand.

Fervently Orthodox politicians have countered that those devoting their time to religious studies are contributing to the continuity and defense of the state in other, more spiritual ways.

In a bid to head off the petition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month began creating a panel headed by a retired Supreme Court judge that would examine the issue and try to come up with a solution acceptable to all parties.

But Netanyahu suspended the effort this week, after members of the fervently Orthodox Agudat Yisrael Party threatened to bring down the government if the panel were formed.

Last week, opposition leader Ehud Barak presented a bill that would limit the number of deferrals for yeshiva students to 700, compared to the 2,800 currently granted each year.

That move prompted some Orthodox lawmakers to say Barak would never get their support if he were ever to lead a government.

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