Inflated Number of ultra-Orthodox in Israeli Army Exposes a Deeper Problem

The report, which shook the army, can't be dismissed as mistakes made by lower-ranking officers

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Ultra-Orthodox men during recruitment at the IDF's Recruiting Office, Tel Hashomer, December 2019.
Ultra-Orthodox men during recruitment at the IDF's Recruiting Office, Tel Hashomer, December 2019.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Washington Post published many details this week of a comprehensive and classified study conducted by the American administration concerning the results of the endless war in Afghanistan. Eighteen years after it began, as a questionable response to the September 11 attacks, the study shows that not only has the war been a prolonged failure, a bottomless pit of resources and losses, but also the authorities acted intentionally to conceal the truth from the American public.

In remarks this week, the head of the agency that conducted the study said the documents reveal that the administration lied to the public.

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Another high official described how an intentional effort was made to modify the data in order to persuade public opinion that the war was a success. Of the data the army used, he said: “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”

This picturesque description also reverberated somehow in the wake of the exposure of a local affair: Carmela Menashe of the Kan public broadcaster revealed the matter of deceptive IDF reports concerning the conscription of ultra-Orthodox soldiers. In the meantime, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has appointed a committee of experts headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa to look into the resounding fiasco of the counting of the ultra-Orthodox.

Manpower Directorate Head Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz displayed public courage this week when he appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee when he took responsibility for the failure. There was something ironic about it all. Among the politicians who were demanding explanations were three former chiefs of staff and one former head of the Manpower Directorate, all members of Kahol Lavan, on whose watches at least some of the faults occurred.

The army is focusing its explanations for the inflation of the numbers, which brought it closer to the goals set by the Conscription Law, on an error in the interpretation of the criteria. Conscripts whom the IDF identified as ultra-Orthodox in their way of life, even though they had not studied as required in an ultra-Orthodox educational institution after the age of 14, were defined in the army’s lists as ultra-Orthodox.

However, this does not contribute to explaining how the names of about 300 additional soldiers, not Haredi in any way, shape or form, came to appear on those lists. At the Manpower Directorate they attribute some of the mistakes to the transfer of the job of gathering the data to the administration for recruiting ultra-Orthodox soldiers, the success of which is measured by the numbers of recruits and which looks, in retrospect, like a less suitable setting for precise tracking.

However, it would be a serious error to place the blame on a major or two in the outfit for conscription of ultra-Orthodox soldiers. First of all, way back at the beginning of the decade a number of state comptroller’s reports warned about unreliable data regarding ultra-Orthodox soldiers. Secondly, the affair that Menashe has exposed reinforces the diagnoses by former Military Ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brik concerning faults in the organizational culture of the IDF and the gap between the rosy manpower picture disseminated by the army and the true figures. The army, especially in the area of manpower, has for years suffered from shaky standards of gathering and analyzing data and often intentional deceptions as well, to the point of falsified reports.

In part, apparently, the phenomenon stems from the desire of junior officers to fulfill the organization’s requirement, not to anger their superiors and not to be caught in errors to which the command’s response is most often tougher and more aggressive than in the management culture of a civilian company. Thus, the army presents flexible and frequently changing figures on a number of questions, from young people’s motivation for serving in combat units to the proportion and quality of the officers who agree to sign on for additional tours of duty in the career army.

Maj. Gen. Numa was assigned a defined mission – to clarify how the fault in the counting of the ultra-Orthodox soldiers occurred and to present the true figures to the General Staff and the government, as quickly a possible. The question of the conscription of ultra-Orthodox men has been at the center of political controversies in recent years and indeed has been invoked as one of the excuses for the failure ot form a government, because of the absence of agreements between Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Be that as it may, perhaps Numa would do well to take advantage of the opportunity to begin a more probing examination of the culture of reporting in the IDF, among the Manpower Directorate adjutants in particular. This has been a long-range stumbling block, with which the army has not dealt until now despite the warnings from Brik and others.

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