The law governing ultra-Orthodox enlistment is tearing apart Israeli society. On top of petitions to the High Court of Justice and fights in the Knesset, it was instrumental in the failure to form a government that led to the scheduling of a new election.
The issue involves not only principles — should Haredim be drafted, and in what numbers? — but also a practical question: How does drafting Haredim help Israeli society as a whole? Research on Haredi men who have served in the Israel Defense Forces shows their service duty didn’t necessarily give them vocational skills or help them find jobs.
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A young Haredi man who asked not to be identified sought service in a combat unit. He was drafted two years ago. Like hundreds of his peers, he took part in an army prep program for ultra-Orthodox teens run by the organization Shahar before joining the paratroopers. Like many non-Haredi high-schoolers, he prepared himself by joining a running group and attending Krav Maga courses and combat-style fitness courses.
He is one of some 500 Haredim who have served in the ultra-Orthodox units within the paratroopers and the Givati Brigade. Currently, some 1,600 ultra-Orthodox youth serve in the army every year. He’s also now approaching what many soldiers like him consider the biggest challenge: The “task year.”
Like soldiers in the ultra-Orthodox Nahal unit, Haredi soldiers in combat units serve for two years in combat service. In their third year, they are sent to what is supposed to be career or college prep studies. Soldiers can choose from several study options.
It sounds good, and yet the solders call it “the hard part of army service.”
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“The IDF uses them and throws them out,” says Hanoch Rogozinsky, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Gur community and the head of Shahar.
“For their first two years of IDF service, the ultra-Orthodox soldier goes through an empowering experience. He undergoes a process of ‘Israelization,’ and doors open for him — but in the third year, as they’re preparing to return to civilian life, the Haredi soldiers feel like the army is kicking them out. If at first they were treated in an entirely professional way, the third year is a failure that makes many soldiers ask to give up and go back to combat duty. Career guidance is a field in and of itself, and so long as the IDF insists on controlling the process, the results aren’t good.”
Rogozinsky explains how the process is being mismanaged. For instance, the soldiers are never tested to find out how they could best utilize their potential. “For instance they say to someone: Here, take a plastering course or be an electrician, instead of doing college prep for a law degree,” he says. “They offer them studies to prepare for a matriculation certificate, even though it’s not a requirement for joining a pre-college prep program. Even worse, there are only two study centers — in Jerusalem and Holon,” a suburb south of Tel Aviv. “What’s a soldier from Safed, in the north, supposed to do if he needs to study in central Israel? This is where they start to feel abandoned and get disgruntled.”
Hundreds of Haredi parents contact Rogozinsky every year, asking why they bothered to send their sons to combat service, only for them to be demobbed without having gained anything, and having wasted a year, he says.
“Even worse, this frustration prevents more ultra-Orthodox youth from joining the army, or at least makes those who were hesitant to think twice,” says Rogozinsky. “So they’re talking about boosting the Haredi draft, yet they’re giving them a bad experience. The task year is a big missed opportunity for all.”
Rogozinsky says the solution lies in taking away the job of employment prep from the IDF and creating a new body that handles it, perhaps under the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry.
“Or you could just forgo this whole year, extend combat service and help the veterans with career guidance and counseling. Just don’t continue with this problematic current format,” he says.
Yehiel Amoyal, head of the Kivun Center, the largest employment center within the ultra-Orthodox community, meets these frustrated veterans. In theory, they should have received career guidance during their third year, and at this point should be in the middle of professional or college studies, but they come to him as if they never received such a year of specialized training.
“The IDF isn’t set up to run the task year for the ultra-Orthodox community,” says Amoyal. “They absurdly wind up in college prep programs that they don’t need and don’t fit their skill set, and this leads to a high dropout rate and poor success rate,” says Amoyal.
The solutions already exist; they just need to be used, says Amoyal. This includes using some creative thinking and flexibility, and it requires specialized knowledge. A career guidance center catering to the ultra-Orthodox community should be given responsibility for the task, he says.
A study conducted by Asaf Malchi, a researcher with the Israel Democracy Institute, jibes with many of the complaints and shows further shortcomings.
Some 3,100 ultra-Orthodox young men are drafted every year. Some 47% of them serve in combat units, where they sometimes receive training in skills that are in high demand, including as electricians, mechanical equipment operators, carpenters and in auto repair.
Malchi found that only 47% of those who start the ultra-Orthodox soldiers’ task year finish it; this compares to the IDF’s 90% success figure for soldiers who start professional training courses in subjects such as account management, graphic design and microchip processing.
When Malchi asked the Haredi soldiers what they found most significant about their service, some 41% said it helped their personal development and empowerment. Another 25% said they gained new skills. Only 5% said it helped them find work.
Malchi’s study found that a full 88% of Haredi veterans went on to find work outside the Haredi community and at a higher salary than they’d received previously. Around one-third said their military duty helped them find work, primarily in defense roles, while others found nonprofessional work driving, in factories, in sales or at restaurants.
“Without formal education, the employment options within these fields are very limited,” says Malchi. This indicates that military duty is not actually giving these soldiers an employment advantage.
Another army service option available to the ultra-Orthodox is called Magen, and its goal is a clear path to employment. It includes professional training in technology related fields such as programming. As opposed to combat duty, this path is open to married yeshiva students between the ages of 22 and 27. Participants receive a higher salary than that paid to their younger compatriots in mandatory army service. As of 2015, some 1,600 ultra-Orthodox men were drafted into this program - some one-third of all ultra-Orthodox draftees that year. Some 37% served in military intelligence, and another 24% were in the Israel Air Force.
Research from 2016 that followed some 233 soldiers from this unit found that a full 87% found work after their military service. Yet the veterans reported that their army service hadn’t helped them improve in core skills such as English, math or computers. Even though this army program is defined as entirely technology-based, only 30% of veterans reported going on to professional studies or higher education.
“The main challenge is that the soldiers don’t fit their jobs, primarily due to draft quotas,” states Malchi. “Those responsible need to meet government-set draft quotas, and sometimes they do this at the expense of placing draftees in roles that suit them within the program.”
“Due to the high expectations of the draftees and the unmet promises of those drafting them, some of the these veterans feel frustrated and unsatisfied with their service. Many say that the labor market isn’t waiting for the ultra-Orthodox with open arms, even for those who served in prestigious roles such as the technology program,” says March.
Malch notes that officials in the army as well as the government are aware of the problem, but it hasn’t been addressed on the structural and administrative levels.