For the first time, the Defense Minister has refused to recognize a group of 61 new yeshivot - meaning that 1,000 students now face being drafted into the army. The decision affects yeshivot under three years old.
At present, some 50,000 yeshiva students receive annual army exemptions, Army Radio reports, in the merit of having "Torah is their livelihood" status. This arrangement was originally put in place by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Opponents of yeshiva exemptions say that at the time, there were only several hundred such students, while today the number has grown to many times that. It is estimated that 11% of eligible soldiers receive a yeshiva exemption, compared with less than half that percentage ten years ago.
Barak's decision is designed to restore the IDF to the status of what he calls "the army of the entire nation." The yeshiva establishment sees it as just the latest in a series of unacceptable army decisions on religious matters, such as the regulations forcing male soldiers to take part in many activities with female soldiers, and the dispersion of hesder units into smaller groups amidst large numbers of secular soldiers.
Barak's assistant Ruth Barr and the Defense Ministry's Legal Counsel, Ach'az Ben-Ari, will formulate new criteria by which to determine which new yeshivot can be accepted to the "Torah is his livelihood" plan. Defense Ministry sources hope the new difficulties in being accepted to a recognized yeshiva will encourage would-be students to join the army instead.
MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) responded with great ire: "No one here is evading the draft, and I don't like this talk of 'putting an end to this.' If he [Barak] would have said, 'Gafni. let's talk about this issue head-on,' that would have been great. Let him sit with the heads of the hareidi community and we'll think about changes - if he is honest."
"This is beginning to remind me of the 'civil revolution' that Barak tried to do when he was Prime Minister,' Gafni said, "because he's not going to change the number of yeshiva students [with this decision], but he gets his headlines."
Gafni noted that he had recently spoken with Barak about the issue, and that Barak had assured him that the issue was only a technical one that could easily be solved.
Sharp Shas Reaction
A Shas party source reacted to Barak's decision by saying that the Defense Minister was simply trying to contrive a coalition crisis with Shas in order to topple the government. "His decision does not jibe with our coalition agreements," the source said. "If Barak wants to quit, let him quit." Barak's Labor Party and the hareidi-religious Sephardic Shas Party sit together, not altogether comfortably, in the same government coalition.