Haaretz Probe: Many in IDF's Haredi Track Aren't Really Haredi

Shahar program allows Haredi men aged 22 to 26 to serve in the army for a year and a half; according to three separate sources, many recent participants are religious Zionists not Haredim.

Many of the participants in the army's flagship program for drafting yeshiva students are not in fact ultra-Orthodox, a Haaretz investigation has found.

In the public debate over efforts to draft yeshiva students, the Israel Defense Forces' Shahar program is frequently cited as a model for how they can be integrated into the army and prepared for eventual employment in the civilian sector. It is true that the program, whose name is a Hebrew acronym for Shiluv Haredim ("Ultra-Orthodox integration"), has gained momentum in recent years and shown positive initial results. But it turns out that many of the program's participants aren't actually Haredim.

Haredi soldiers praying at Massada - Alex Levaac
Alex Levac

The Shahar program allows Haredi men aged 22 to 26 to serve in the army for about a year and a half. At the beginning of their service, they study math and English, which get short shrift in Haredi schools. They then move on to training geared to their army service, generally in fields involving technology.

They occupy a relatively broad range of positions in various IDF branches, including the air force, the navy, Military Intelligence, the technological and logistics directorate and the Home Front Command. They are promised a setting conducive to their religious needs, including a lack of close contact with women.

But according to three separate sources, it turns out that a large number of recent participants in the program are religious Zionists rather than Haredim.

The IDF said the non-Haredi participants don't represent more than 10 percent of the total. But the sources insisted that the number of non-Haredim among the most recent Shahar recruits is relatively large, particularly in the computer training program in Military Intelligence. According to one source, more than 40 percent of the most recent class of about 30 recruits to the MI computer course were religious Zionists rather than ultra-Orthodox.

The acceptance of the son of MI's chief rabbi, Maj. Netanel Doroni, engendered particular outrage. Doroni's son is a graduate of a religious Zionist school, and according to one source, his acceptance into the program was withdrawn after Haredi candidates who were denied admission complained.

It costs the state about NIS 130,000 on average to fund the participation of one Haredi soldier in the MI computer program, a source said.

The program's advantages (shorter service, learning a trade ) are obviously attractive to non-Haredim as well. But it's the Haredim, not the religious Zionists, who actually need the army's help in integrating into the work force after their service: Unlike the religious Zionist community, Haredim have a very low rate of work force participation. Yet when religious Zionists participate in the Shahar program, this comes at the expense of Haredi applicants.

The IDF Spokesman's Office said in response that most of the yeshivas on the list from which recruits are drawn are Haredi, though a small number are identified with the religious Zionist community. The number of religious Zionist recruits to Shahar does not exceed 10 percent, it added.

In principle, the program benefits all the parties involved. The Haredim get valuable professional training that they can apply in the job market after their army service. The IDF gets recruits, and it has generally given the ultra-Orthodox soldiers high marks for motivation and professionalism. And the state not only benefits by their service in the military, but also by their later entry into the work force.

For the IDF, the program also has another benefit: Participation in the Shahar program is funded directly by the Finance Ministry, so it doesn't come out of the IDF's regular budget.

The Shahar program came up for discussion at the most recent meeting of a parliamentary subcommittee headed by MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) that is looking into the issue of recruiting Haredim into the military. IDF representatives who attended the session last week said they recommended that the number of Shahar participants be increased from about 600 last year to 1,500 in 2015, rather than the 900 the government has approved.

The Finance Ministry's representative at the meeting responded that the treasury wants to make sure all the participants in the program are Haredi. The ministry and the IDF are already at loggerheads over this year's recruitment to Shahar, over concerns that religious Zionist soldiers are being accepted.

Plesner said his subcommittee would exercise oversight to ensure that the Shahar program does not recruit people who would have enlisted in any event. "These are very expensive programs," he said, "and we have to verify that only the right people are accepted to them."

Looking at the bigger picture regarding Haredi recruitment into the IDF, the state appears to be setting modest goals for the coming years. About 480 men per year serve in the Nahal Haredi battalion and a few other Haredi combat units, and the current plan calls for increasing the number to just 600 by 2015. Moreover, the number of religious Zionists serving in the Nahal Haredi battalion has been on the rise as well, apparently because recruits from the right wing of this community prefer a Haredi framework in which they do not have to serve with women. Overall, the number of Haredi recruits is expected to be about 10,000 by 2015.