JERUSALEM (AP) – An official Israeli committee on Thursday handed the government its proposal for ending a contentious system that grants Jewish ultra-Orthodox seminary students automatic exemptions from military service, setting the stage for what could become the first major conflict in the new Israeli coalition government.
These exemptions have generated widespread resentment in a country where military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens. Public anger over the exemptions was a central issue in January elections and helped propel the centrist Yesh Atid party to a strong showing.
With a platform calling for a “sharing of the burden,” the party promised to end the preferential treatment given to the seminary students. But the committee’s proposal, led by Yesh Atid Cabinet Minister Yaakov Peri, is full of compromises that drew criticism from all directions.
Under the new system, all 17-year-old Jewish males will have to register with the military. But seminary students will be allowed to continue their studies and will not be required to perform their military service until age 21. That could signal a relatively easy term of service since older soldiers typically serve for shorter periods of time.
In addition, the new system won’t go into effect for three years, meaning that the thousands of seminary students who currently are studying will never have to serve.
“We are talking about a historic correction,” Peri said in a statement. “Everyone will share the burden.”
The proposal includes financial incentives for seminaries whose students cooperate with the law, and would punish seminaries and students who do not comply. It also seeks to limit the number of students who ultimately receive full-time exemptions for being “exceptional” religious scholars. In all, it aims to enlist roughly 70 percent of the ultra-Orthodox population into military service or parallel national service.
Secular critics said the proposal is not tough enough, and warned that the three-year waiting period before implementation opened the way for opponents to make sure the plan is never carried out.
The Yisrael Beitenu faction in parliament, another member of the coalition, said the plan did not do enough to ensure that Israel’s Arab citizens, who are also exempt from military service, be drafted into national service.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders, meanwhile, said it was an attack on their way of life. Meir Porush, an ultra-Orthodox politician, called it a “miserable bill” meant to destroy religious study. “The future of our existence is in danger,” he told the YNet website.
The Israeli Cabinet is set to debate the proposal on Sunday, though Channel 2 TV said Israel’s attorney general had requested a two-week delay so he could study the plan’s legal aspects.
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