Analysis |

The Israeli Army Is Losing the War to Draft More ultra-Orthodox

Not only has the number of recruits started to drop, but many of those who serve are no longer ultra-Orthodox

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An ultra-Orthodox man standing by the recruitment office of the IDF in Jerusalem, December 2, 2019.
An ultra-Orthodox man standing by the recruitment office of the IDF in Jerusalem, December 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Civil national service for Haredim is a joke, as demonstrated by just one of the graphs appearing in a study by Asaf Malchi of the Israel Democracy Institute. The figure clearly shows how from 2001 though 2017 the number of Haredim performing national service has declined from year to year, coming nowhere near the targets that were set. In 2017 it reached a third of the targeted level and since then it has fallen.

As a result, the IDI recommends that Israel consider dropping national service for the ultra-Orthodox altogether or limit their duties to the security track (such as the police, Prison Service, and Magen David Adom).

However, the more disturbing figures in the graph concern the comparative group: While Haredi numbers for national service are falling, the draft for the Israel Defense Forces looks like a stunning success. In 2011-17, the number of Haredi recruits grew from 1,282 to 3,070 – a nearly three-fold increase in seven years. The divergence of the two lines gives something for the IDF to boast about.

But that is no longer the case. Malchi’s graph ends in 2017, but if it were to continued into the following year that rising line would suddenly change direction. We don’t know how many ultra-Orthodox enlisted in the IDF last year – the army is keeping the figures to itself as if it were a state secret, stirring a lot of speculation.

A Haaretz report this week alleged that ultra-Orthodox enlistment fell by 20 percent in just one year to 2,480. Other sources put the number at a higher 2,700 or even 3,000. The IDF spokesperson’s bureau said the 2018 numbers, which cover the period of July 2018 to June 2019, have not yet been completely compiled. But it appears that for the first time in close to a decade the number of Haredi recruits is in retreat.

Considering that the army sought to raise its recruitment target by an annual eight percent – that was the IDF’s own recommendation as part of the Haredi draft legislation that eventually toppled the government – the absolute decline in enlistment is a stunning failure.

Worse than that, no one can rely on the figures for Haredi recruitment to begin with because it’s not entirely clear whether these recruits are really Haredim. According to the army, a recruit is deemed ultra-Orthodox if they’re between the ages of 14 and 18 spent at least two years in a Haredi educational institution. The problem is that this definition also includes those young men who may have dropped out of the Haredi community.

The experts agree that the IDF’s figures on Haredi recruits include just these kinds of drop-outs. The Knesset Research and Information Center, in a paper published a year ago, estimated that ins 2016-17 a fifth of “ultra-Orthodox” enlistees were community dropouts. Reaching this figure was easy: They center simply counted those Haredim who enlisted for ordinary army units rather than opting for the special Haredi battallions.

Haredi men who dare enlist in the army face being ostracized by their communities, and to avoid that problem most tend to sign up only for those units that allow them to stick to their lifestyle. They can justify the sacrifices they make in the hope it will give them an entrée into the labor market. The two best known employment paths for such youths are the Shahar technology track and the combat track called Netzah Yehuda. Both operate under rabbinic supervision and offer an entire year of education and professional training.

The army invests a lot in these Haredi tracks and this has aroused much criticism, mainly for their exclusion of women. These tracks are also expensive to operate because of that extra year of schooling and because the Shahar program often recruits young fathers, which entitles those who are drafted to receive full salaries.

Therefore, the news that a fifth of Haredi soldiers don’t really need these specialized units and prefer ordinary service makes the entire undertaking look ridiculous.

In 2018, we’re talking about a flashing red light: The figures that the IDF is keeping a secret is that the number of ultra-Orthodox men who opt to serve in a regular army unit has jumped to 40%, or 1,100-,1260 from last year’s recruitment total of some 2,500 to 3,000 overall. That’s double the number of so-called Haredi recruits opting for regular service over special units for the ultra-Orthodox in less than a year.

What happened last year to account for the change? Opinions are divided. Some attribute it to internal factors inside the IDF. The army has embarked on a reorganization of its Haredi draft system and the change was a failure. Others attribute it to Israel’s political vacuum and the struggle over the Haredi draft law.

Beyond that, there’s a longer-term issue of declining interest on the part of Haredim to enlist at all. Today there are no sanctions imposed on those who shun military duty and the benefits they get from serving – entry into the labor market – they can also obtain via professional training courses offered by the Labor Ministry.

The economic and political pressure once felt by many Haredim which prompted many to consider military service has eased since 2015 after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met the demands of his Haredi coalition partners, paying the price of bringing them into the government.

Remember that the Haredi draft law sets a target of 5,737 recruits by 2027. The current enlistment number raises serious doubts as to whether that target stands any chances of being met. All the incentives the army has given Haredim for their service hasn’t done the work. The issue raises fundamental questions about these specialized tracks at a time when the army is successful in enlisting Haredim at the margins – moderate Sephardim, modern Haredim and those who leave the ultra-Orthodox world. Two non-profit organizations that aid Haredim who leave the community say that the army is missing out on the opportunity to focus on those groups.

“While the government is investing huge resources on Haredim who don’t want to integrate into society it is ignoring those who do,” says Hillel-The Right to Choose, which helps young adults who have left the ultra-Orthodox world.

“The impression we get is that we’ve reached the point that dropouts from the Haredi fold have created the illusion that the project to integrate Haredim is succeeding,” Moshe Shenfeld of another group, Out for Change, says. “In a certain way this fiction is comfortable for everyone. Those who continue dressing as Haredim get some benefits, the organizations working in the field get budgets and policy makers enjoy the illusion that their programs are working. The main loser is the country.”