Israel court strikes law on ultra-Orthodox army deferral

AFP , Wednesday 22 Feb 2012

The supreme court has struck down as unconstitutional a controversial law which allowed ultra-Orthodox Jews to defer their service in the Israeli military

"This law is not constitutional and the parliament cannot extend its application in this form when it expires on August 1, 2012," a ruling by the supreme court stated in describing an installed ruling that helped ultra Orthodox jews to postpone their military service.The ruling, handed down late on Tuesday, could affect the future of tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews who have so far been able to avoid military service by proving active enrolment in religious studies.

The so-called Tal Law had been promoted as a way to encourage ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military, by offering them an opportunity to serve a shorter term than their compatriots, or do civil service instead.

But it also codified a longtime understanding which meant ultra-Orthodox Jews able to prove their enrolment in religious studies were exempted from military service -- an agreement that has angered many other Israelis. The court on Tuesday found that the law had effectively failed in its stated purpose of attracting increased service by the ultra-Orthodox, with statistics showing ever greater numbers of them are instead receiving exemptions.

In failing to attract more ultra-Orthodox to the military, the law had merely codified a system that unfairly exempts part of society from the burden of army service, the court said. Military service is compulsory for Israelis over the age of 18, with men serving three years and women two years.

The controversial law, which was passed in 2002, prompted many Israelis to question why part of society should be insulated from service in one of the country's most important institutions.

Israel's ultra-Orthodox, identifiable by their traditional black suits, hats, and sidelocks, can trace their exemption from military service to the very beginning of the Jewish state.

At the time, the ultra-Orthodox won assurances that their community of around 400 people would be protected from service as they sought to rebuild after the Holocaust. But the number has since ballooned to an estimated 70,000 people, figures published by the Israeli media show.

The fallout from Tuesday's ruling is expected to become an immediate priority for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition includes ultra-Orthodox parties. In a statement, he played down the import of the ruling, saying a new formulation for the law was already planned.

"The Tal Law in its current format will not be continued, and in the coming months we will formulate a new law that will lead to a more just change in the burden of all sectors of Israeli society."

While secular activists and commentators urged the government to use the ruling to overhaul the traditional exemption enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu is expected to draft a similar law that will retain the possibility of deferred military service for students of religion.

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