Ultra-Orthodox Enlistment in Israeli Army Drops by 20 Percent

IDF says most recruits are former yeshiva students who left ultra-Orthodox world. This is the first time the number of Haredi recruits drops since the special enlistment tracks were opened in 2007

An ultra-Orthodox protest against the new conscription law in Jerusalem, October 2018.
Tomer Appelbaum

The number of Haredim enlisting in the IDF dropped by 20 percent in 2018, compared to 2017. Internal IDF figures, which Haaretz has obtained, show that 2,440 Haredim were drafted in 2018, compared to 3,070 the year before. This is the first time the number of ultra-Orthodox recruits dropped since the military opened its special enlistment tracks for them in 2007.

The number of Haredi enlistees was 800 less than the target set for 2018 by the government and the IDF back in 2016: 3,200 new recruits. The number of Haredim enlisting is also low after taking into account the natural growth in the Haredi population, about 4 percent a year on average – which would be expected to lead to a steady increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox men enlisting in the military.

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According to the present law on enlistment, whose validity was extended by the High Court of Justice until a deadline for the government to pass a new law, a Haredi enlistee is considered to be someone who studied in a Haredi institution for at least two years between age 14 and 18.

But about 90 percent of those listed as Haredim and who are drafted into regular IDF units – and not those that are specifically earmarked for the program for enlisting the ultra-Orthodox – are no longer considered to be ultra-Orthodox. They are young men who studied in a yeshiva but have since left Haredi society, said sources involved in the matter. But the IDF defines these young men as Haredim for purposes of meeting its enlistment targets. As of August 2018, out of the 7,250 men defined as Haredim serving in the military, 19 percent (about 1,440) served in regular army units. But over the past year, about 40 percent of draftees described as Haredim (some 1,100) are serving in these regular units.

“The drop in the number of Haredim enlisting in the IDF over the last year conveys the implications of the lack of a draft law for Haredim,” Gilad Malach, the director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, told Haaretz. “A new law that includes increasing enlistment goals for Haredim, which will include economic sanctions for yeshivas in the case of not meeting the goals, would improve the IDF’s preparedness for drafting Haredim, and increase the motivation of young Haredim to enlist.”

Politicians in the ultra-Orthodox community are willing to accept a new version of the draft law, because they have realized that it does not touch the real yeshiva students as many of those who do enlist and are counted as Haredim have already left the yeshivas before their enlistment, says Malach.

According to the law on the military draft, the Defense Ministry was supposed to publish data on enlistment a few months ago. But the IDF’s Manpower Directorate has so far kept the figures confidential and has refused to reveal them despite a request from Haaretz.

“The figure on the number of Haredi draftees in the enlistment year 2018 [which began in August 2018 and ended in June 2019] has yet to be tabulated, said the IDF. But a source with knowledge of the details said the Manpower Directorate has the complete data, but has decided not to release it because of a fear the data might be used for political purposes, given the political crisis last year caused by the proposed new draft law.

The IDF did not meet its enlistment targets set by the government for Haredim in previous years either. For example, in 2016 2,800 Haredim were drafted, compared to a target of 3,200. The year before, 2,475 were drafted, compared to a goal of 2,700; and in 2014, the figures were 2,203 out of 2,300. In practice, the military has not met its Haredi enlistment goals since 2014 – and the gap between the number enlisting and the target has been growing steadily.

The latest version of the proposed new draft law, which has passed its first reading in the Knesset – in July 2018 the enlistment target was set at 3,348 for soldiers in the IDF and another 648 doing national service. The next stage would raise these goals by 8 percent by 2020, and after that by 6.5 percent a year. The final number set in the proposed law is drafting 6,844 Haredim in 2027. According to the law, the government would impose economic sanctions on yeshivas that do not meet their enlistment targets – but does not explicitly address the issue of criminal sanctions. This version of the law was written by the Defense Ministry with the support of Avigdor Lieberman, who was defense minister at the time.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s office declined to comment.