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Israeli police disperse Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and youth during a protest against Israeli army conscription outside an army recruitment office in Jerusalem on April 11.MENAHEM KAHANA/Getty Images

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews filled streets in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighbourhood near a military recruitment centre Thursday, vowing their children will never join fellow Israelis in the armed forces.

Their protest was a response to a recent decision from Israel’s Supreme Court that ordered the country’s leaders to end a decades-long exemption from mandatory military service for the ultra-Orthodox community. This exemption is a divisive political issue entwined with profound issues of Jewish identity – one that has become all the more urgent amid the war in Gaza, and has placed into jeopardy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s grasp on power.

But while the men in black samet hats, long locks and fringed garments chanted “we will die and not be recruited” in Jerusalem, there were also signs of a potential compromise that could allow Mr. Netanyahu to satisfy the demands of an Israeli public that has demanded change, while keeping ultra-Orthodox parties from breaking apart the fragile governing coalition they have helped to support.

Polling shows that nearly three-quarters of Jews in Israel support a new conscription regime that would end the exemption for strictly Orthodox Jews, known in Hebrew as Haredis, who have been allowed to avoid military service while enrolled in full-time Torah studies. Most Israeli Jewish men are conscripted at 18 and required to serve in the military for at least 32 months. Women serve at least two years.

In a 2017 decision, Israel’s Supreme Court found the exemption, which dates to the country’s founding, to be discriminatory and unconstitutional. A ruling in March ordered the suspension of subsidies for ultra-Orthodox Jews studying in yeshivas rather than serving in the military, and ordered a draft for ultra-Orthodox men. Mr. Netanyahu’s government must now decide whether to do that or find a conscription compromise.

This is, to many in the country, an existential question. When asked what defines an Israeli, a “very loud majority says military service,” said Tamar Hermann, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute who oversees a public opinion and policy research program. “This is a major feature in the self-image of most Israelis.”

Many of Israel’s 1.3 million ultra-Orthodox Jews, who now make up 13.6 per cent of the population, counter that conscription would threaten their existence.

“To be drafted into the army means to destroy all the commandments of the Torah,” said Avigdor Shir, a rabbi who joined many others in the Thursday protest. No mandatory enlistment can be permitted, he said. “For us, not even one.” Order a draft, and “we will shut down Jerusalem completely,” he warned.

A letter signed by 18 prominent rabbis with ties to the Shas, the Sephardic Haredi party that forms part of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, declared on Sunday that “compromise will lead to ruination.”

But comments on Thursday from Interior Minister Moshe Arbel, a Shas party member, offered the clearest indication to date that ultra-Orthodox political leaders are contemplating a deal that would involve military recruitment of some of the community’s youth – in particular those not actively studying in yeshivas.

“There is no justification in the world that those who by definition do not learn Torah as their occupation should not be part of the army,” he said on a podcast. In the aftermath of the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7 that killed 1,200 people in Israel and sparked the war in Gaza, “there is no longer a moral option of continuing this way,” he said.

Mr. Arbel’s comments were quickly condemned by powerful Haredi rabbis.

But what he said suggests those in the mainstream are trying to find solutions, said Roni Rimon, a media strategist and political consultant who managed Mr. Netanyahu’s 2009 election campaign.

To survive as Prime Minister, Mr. Netanyahu must find a way to persuade ultra-Orthodox Jews to accept a certain number of recruits, perhaps 2,500 a year, Mr. Rimon said. “It must be shown that they are taking part in the military.” A limited number would be a practical solution, he added, since it would take time to organize units that could meet ultra-Orthodox requirements for kosher food and gender separation.

Mr. Netanyahu has little to offer in return. “He has already given them whatever they wanted,” Mr. Rimon said.

No government has been more financially generous with the ultra-Orthodox, who receive cash stipends, food voucher allowances and other government grants that cost billions of dollars a year. That has given Mr. Netanyahu leverage to keep ultra-Orthodox Jews at his side, according to Mr. Rimon.

“He will explain that if the government falls, they will be empty-handed and the budgets will be cut by another government,” Mr. Rimon said.

Even some of the Prime Minister’s fiercest critics say they expect Mr. Netanyahu, who has been dubbed “the magician,” to find a way to preserve his position.

“He’s a very good chess player, so I trust him to find something that may keep him alive,” said Eitan Herzel, co-founder of Brothers and Sisters for Israel, an organization that last year led many thousands of Israelis in fighting proposed reforms that would have weakened the country’s judiciary.

After the Oct. 7 attacks, the group shifted to supporting the search for hostages taken by Hamas and co-ordinating volunteers. It has grown into the country’s largest civilian aid organization.

Brothers and Sisters is now directing its organizing powers toward supporting conscription for ultra-Orthodox Jews. Mr. Herzel is planning a rally on Friday near the home of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant as a show of support.

He believes Israel will struggle to guard its future if it cannot secure greater contributions from ultra-Orthodox Jews. If current demographic trends continue, they will make up a third of the country in four decades.

“When I meet rabbis and politicians from the ultra-Orthodox side, I say, ‘Your grandchildren and my grandchildren will have to sit together and develop the next Iron Dome,’” he said, referring to the country’s missile defence system.

“We need to work together,” he said. “In order to survive here, we have no choice.”

Yet the debate over ultra-Orthodox military service has also brought to the fore an alternative vision of how Israel can co-exist with its neighbours. Palestinian flags hang over the ancient cobbled streets that form the heart of Mea Shearim.

Yudel Hirsch, a member of Neturei Karta, a fringe, minority Haredi group that advocates dismantling the Israeli state, likens asking ultra-Orthodox Jews to enlist to asking Israelis to join Hamas.

“We completely oppose the Israeli military. By bringing us into the army they are trying to make us Zionists, part of the country,” he said.

“Jews should not have an army.”

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