The Israeli Army Needs ultra-Orthodox Soldiers

Falling draft rates and shorter service means ultra-Orthodox are a critical pool

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Ultra-Orthodox men protesting in Jerusalem against the contested draft bill.
Ultra-Orthodox men protesting in Jerusalem against the contested draft bill.Credit: Emil salman
Hagai Amit
Hagai Amit

In June the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee heard yet again the army’s warnings about recruitment difficulties, declining enlistment rates and shorter draft periods.

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In 1990, 75% of all young Israelis who qualified for service were drafted; the rate fell to 65% in 2017 and is expected to reach 64% in 2020. The decline has been steady for 30 years. That’s because Israel’s Haredi and Arab communities, whose young people aren’t drafted, grew faster than the overall population.

Only 14% of Haredi men are exempt from the draft due to full-time religious studies. But if you add in women, who are wholly exempt, and the men who defer service until they age out, only 35% of Haredim are drafted. Only the overall population growth accounts for the rise in the number of recruits.

Meanwhile, as of July 2015 mandatory service was cut by four months; the impact is about to begin. In 2020, another two months is due to be shaved off, so men will only have to serve 30 months.

Women, however, are increasingly opting to serve 32 months, as men do. The number of women in combat units has risen fivefold, to 2,700. Haredi enlistment also jumped, from about 300 a year a decade ago to over 3,000 in the recruitment year that ends this summer. About a third serve in combat units.

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Nevertheless, recruitment rates are falling. Yet there are politicians, not only Haredim but on the left and in Likud, who say there’s no reason to insist on drafting Haredim.

Last week, MKs Mossi Raz (Meretz) and Yehudah Glick (Likud) held a Knesset conference on proposed legislation to end the draft that drew participants from across the political spectrum.

“We’re already a semiprofessional army and the army knows it,” said Raz. “The four lowest [income] deciles rarely enlist, so it’s not a melting pot. There are groups that do not and will never enlist. How much longer will we incite against each other? We propose a draft with one condition: Those who don’t want to, don’t have to.”

MK Menachem Eliezer Moses (United Torah Judaism) added: “In what other country do they draft women? Only North Korea. Secular people don’t really want yeshiva students to be drafted. ”

“We want a strong country to be strong, but the truth is that a third of the nation of Israel doesn’t enlist so factually speaking it is no longer the people’s army,” added Glick. “It can’t be that what we needed when we were 600,000 people in 1948 hasn’t changed now that we’re 8 million people in 2018.”

Sentiments like these won the backing of Arab MKs like Esawi Freige (Meretz) who said, “The draft is basically about preserving a tribal state in which 20% of the non-Jewish population who share a common fate with it are excluded from the melting pot. ... The draft is anti-democratic.”

The army doesn’t share this point of view.

“All the claims about the Israel Defense Forces not needing Haredim and other recruits is incorrect, certain as regards the next decade,” said MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Camp), a critic of the current Haredi draft law. “The IDF needs to draft the same numbers it has until now and that means it has to draft Haredim, even in nominal terms, to close the gap created by shorter service.”

Bar-Lev said the shorter service times would help reduce the inequality between those who serve and those who don’t, but only it is accompanied by drafting more Haredi men.

And so we now have the draft law that was approved Sunday by the cabinet and goes to the Knesset Monday for its first reading.

The law wasn’t born out of a desire to solve the problem of the Haredi draft or because the problem of declining rates of enlistment, only to keep the September deadline set by the High Court of Justice.

If it were designed to address the latter issue, it wouldn’t work. Under the law, the target for ultra-Orthodox enlistment in 2018 is 3,348 among the 10,000 who reach draft age now. Another 648 will do civilian national service. These numbers are supposed to grow to 5,737 by 20027.

Even if these numbers are met they will be far short of the rate among the general population and doesn’t make up for the overall decline in enlistments. The lack of Haredi draftees makes the IDF less of a people’s army.

The law itself sets goals that are more or less in line with the rise in Haredi recruitment over the last decade. If that’s the case, it should have set for itself more ambitious goals because the army needs them.

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