Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday proposed granting an exemption from mandatory military service to no more than 10 percent of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, who would otherwise be eligible to serve.
Barak made the proposal to the Plesner Committee — a panel established to formulate an alternative to the soon-to-be-expired Tal Law. The law, which was recently ruled unconstitutional, has so far afforded a blanket exemption to all ultra-Orthodox Jews from mandatory service.
Barak's proposal, which aims to appease the ultra-Orthodox leadership, is intended as a response to the ultra-Orthodox insistence that religious men who wish to study Torah should not be prevented from doing so.
The defense minister explained that the dialogue with the ultra-Orthodox community should be based on a "mature, authoritative and responsible approach that strives for a solution that everyone can agree on, as much as possible."
"We need to recognize the ultra-Orthodox community as a significant ingredient in the mosaic of Israeli society," Barak added.
He insisted that the law obligate the ultra-Orthodox to enlist, rather than making military service voluntary, but warned against "a situation where our prisons are packed with draft dodgers, apprehended by military police in their homes and in city centers."
Barak stipulated that the 10% that would be exempt would have to be exceptional and particularly promising Torah scholars. He further suggested that half of the yeshiva students who were not eligible for an exemption would be able to choose between three different military-security paths: joining an Israel Defense Forces unit tasked with routine security that would be designated specifically for ultra-Orthodox soldiers; joining the existing ultra-Orthodox air force program Shachar; or joining a non-military program such as the Israel Prison Service or the Israel Police. The other half would be recruited to civilian programs.
Barak remarked that "the IDF and the security apparatus view the issue of equality in shouldering the security burden as it pertains to most of the ultra-Orthodox youth as a supremely important move, which will contribute significantly to the unity of Israeli society."
The defense minister also suggested implementing a process by which the obligatory military service of most non-combat soldiers and soldiers who serve in positions that don't require much training would be gradually shortened. "The needs of the IDF make it very difficult to shorten the service right now, but there is financial and social logic to the idea of shortening the service of certain soldiers," he said.