Analysis

Israeli Army Report on Haredi Draft Figures Shows It May Be Best to Exempt ultra-Orthodox

The headache involved for the military is too great, and this community would be better off doing civilian national service in places like emergency services' ambulances

Security forces clash with ultra-Orthodox protesters in Jerusalem, following the arrest of a yeshiva student who refused to enlist in the IDF, January 26, 2020.
Emil Salman

The Israel Defense Forces’ committee that has published conclusions on the inflated data on ultra-Orthodox draftees expanded the mandate it received from IDF chief Aviv Kochavi. The panel has recommended a general review of policy on drafting young ultra-Orthodox men, and basically called for a complete revision of that policy.

Not only did the panel take a broader mandate, it called for the government to make a 180-degree turn on what has been Israeli policy for two decades under various versions of the conscription law. The panel recommends that the government draw up a national strategy for drafting ultra-Orthodox men, and examine the possibility of gradually reducing the exemption age for this community.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 63Haaretz

According to the original report crafted by the committee, the military should consider canceling the exemption age for the ultra-Orthodox, which on average is 24. Two committee members reiterated this idea in a meeting Thursday with reporters. But the final version of the report recommends a reduction of the exemption age, not a cancellation.

Under the current system, until ultra-Orthodox men are 24, many are stuck inside yeshivas and are prevented from learning a trade or entering the job market for fear they will then have to join the military. The practical result of the committee’s conclusions is that the current system no longer works – and it’s doubtful whether it ever really worked.

“We thought we would be missing something if we only addressed the problem from the standpoint of how the numbers got distorted,” said Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa, the head of the committee. “There are macro questions for the IDF that we thought we should look at as well,” he said Thursday.

The report shows how the IDF lied to itself and misled the government, the High Court of Justice and the public for years by pointing optimistically to data for ultra-Orthodox conscription that didn’t really exist.

The conclusion that needs to be drawn from this is that if the system has failed, it’s best to exempt the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim. It’s best to quit pretending that we can maintain a real model of equality in bearing the burden and start seriously compensating the soldiers who really do serve. In this sense the Numa committee is rendering an important public service: a review of the overall model.

It remains to be seen whether something will come of the committee’s findings. The chances don’t look great; the politicians are busy with the upcoming election. It seems more likely that each side in the debate on the Haredi draft will use the panel’s findings to market its original positions, and it’s hard to believe that the report will swiftly lead to a review of the policy.

The committee is saying good things: The desire to share the burden worsens inequality among the recruits. An ultra-Orthodox soldier who is married – and whose use to the IDF is clear – gets much higher financial compensation than a combat soldier inducted via the regular process. The headache involved for the system to draft the ultra-Orthodox is simply too great, and many of those recruited aren’t exactly ultra-Orthodox.

There’s another consideration that the committee didn't touch. The concessions made to the ultra-Orthodox at the expense of female soldiers (such as creating units that women may not join) creates a slippery slope to compromising with exaggerated demands for gender segregation by less-Orthodox soldiers as well.

Israeli soldiers at the Gaza border, February 4, 2020.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Maybe the conclusion to be drawn is that we should stop drafting the ultra-Orthodox and start thinking about how to integrate them into other channels, including as civilian IDF employees. The general concept doesn’t have to be ultra-Orthodox soldiers at any price but rather their effectiveness for the army at the lowest possible cost.

If it's decided in the future that Haredi men will not be drafted, the impact will be significant. It will deal a mortal blow to equality and bury the idea of an equal burden. It will hamper the motivation of some of the young Israelis subject to the draft. This links up with some worrisome data published recently – that a third of men subject to the 2020 draft and more than 40 percent of the women won’t be drafted.

If the Numa committee contributes to a renewed debate, this will be a good time to discuss alternatives to the draft. The most interesting recommendation has been proposed by the Pnima movement headed by Shay Piron, a former education minister.

Pnima has put together a model where the army would retain its first dibs on choosing new recruits. Members of groups like the Haredim and Arab Israelis, for example, would be referred to civilian national service or serve in their communities as first responders; in the fire service or the Magen David Adom rescue service, for example. This is a proposal that the IDF is a partner in promoting behind the scenes, but it hasn’t taken a formal stance.

Way beyond the question of the Haredi draft, the committee provides a glimpse into the wider problem the IDF faces that a former military ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik, pointed to: a poor organizational cultural in many areas of the IDF that in some cases leads to a culture of lies and whitewashing.

It appears that in the Manpower Directorate in particular the faulty reports were linked to an attempt to find favor with senior commanders and make the organization a captive of its own illusions. This seems to have happened to the point of blind faith in false data and absurd ideas.

Numa doesn’t explicitly accuse the military of lying, but he says there was a “serious professional and leadership failure in the system” and “serious professional negligence.” He also mentions “a conscious, systematic and deliberate deviation from the law and a lack of transparency.”

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi speaks to the media in Tel Aviv, November 12, 2019.
Moti Milrod

But he didn’t find any bad intent or forgery. “I don’t think the IDF has a culture of lies. They don’t lie all day,” he said. “There are lies and credibility problems – but the army investigates and people are punished for it.”

The chief of staff, Kochavi, took a step in the right direction with his decision to reprimand top commanders in the Manpower Directorate led by Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, during whose tenure the counting failure worsened.

On the other hand, it’s a bit strange for the committee not to have explored what happened regarding the drafting of the ultra-Orthodox in 2014 and 2015. In recent days a claim has been made that the IDF didn’t dig too much into the period when the Manpower Directorate was headed by Orna Barbivai, who’s now a lawmaker in Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party.

Numa rejects this accusation out of hand. “There were no political considerations during these years the High Court was discussing the issue of the draft on a weekly or biweekly basis,” he said. “So the system was better monitored at that time.”

But it seems that the most appropriate conclusion for the incident was supplied by a committee member and Haredi public figure, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav.

“For my entire life I’ve admired the army from a distance,” he said. “After seeing things up close, I discovered that I was in familiar surroundings, in a shtetl.”