IDF Freezes Service Deferrals for Volunteering Due to Enlistment Drop

Decrease in number of army recruits is due primarily to rise in number of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who don't serve at all.

The Israel Defense Forces has decided not to increase its quota this year for the number of teens it allows to perform voluntary national service or to study at a pre-military academy for one year before beginning their mandatory military service, citing a decrease in the annual number of recruits.

This means that according to an IDF count, hundreds of Israelis, most of them secular, who want to spend the year after high school volunteering or studying will not be permitted to do so. Officials at pre-military academies and in youth movements and volunteer organizations said the number was actually several thousand young people.

The decrease in the overall number of recruits is due primarily to a rise in the number of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students who do not serve in the army at all, though the army also attributes the drop to a reduction in the immigration rate and the need to prepare for a law that will allow reserve battalions to be called up for operational duty only once every three years.

The IDF expects annual draft numbers to remain low at least until 2013.

"This is a group that will carry out their full service, and a large percentage of them will go on to become officers and will do their share in the reserves too," said the principal of a religious pre-military academy about those who defer the draft for a year.

Referring to the Haredi yeshiva students who refuse to serve in the army, he added: "Because of the draft dodging, not everyone can study or volunteer for a year before the army and come in more prepared."

The IDF has been annually increasing its quotas for the past several years, to keep up with the rise in requests for a year's deferral. The rate of requests increased significantly between 2004 and 2009, when 4,800 Israelis were granted a deferral.

"Despite the drop in the number of recruits, the army and the Defense Ministry have approved a significant annual increase in the number of draft deferrals for a year of service or study over the past five years," an IDF source said this week. "This year we simply didn't have a choice. These are top-quality recruits, and if we were to allow more of them to defer the draft, we would have had real difficulty filling the ranks."

The IDF says exemptions for Haredim are an issue that must be resolved at the government level, and that until then, they need to have enough soldiers to carry out regular operations.

Some opponents of the army's decision to freeze the quotas focus on data showing that those who spend a year studying or volunteering end up being better soldiers by some counts, but the IDF is freezing the deferral while letting Haredim off the hook. On average, high school graduates who defer their military service are more likely than the general population to ask to serve in elite units or to become officers.

"There's a clear correlation between volunteering for a year and having high-quality service in the IDF," said Yoel Marshak, who heads the kibbutz movement's task force, which coordinates requests for kibbutz volunteer work. "So why is the army letting yeshiva students out of the army? Why is the head of the personnel directorate saying he doesn't want another Haredi battalion? Why don't they set up a reserve brigade for Haredim?"

Marshak also said that in addition to the increasing demand for a year of volunteer work, there is also high, unmet demand for volunteers.

"In the kibbutz movement alone, there are 2,500 requests from high school seniors from around the country - from people who are not members of kibbutzim - to spend a year volunteering," he said. "And we have to reject most of them because of the quotas. These are young people who help out in youth villages and hostels for youth at risk, where there isn't anyone to be with the kids after classes are over. All week they ask us for more counselors, and we don't have anyone else to send."

The decision to halt the rise in the deferral quotas was a compromise between the IDF's personnel directorate, which wanted to lower the quotas, and the Defense Ministry, which wanted to continue raising them.

Even within the institutions affected by the IDF decision, there is some tension.

The heads of pre-military academies that do not have a religious bent say their religious counterparts are more likely to have the army's ear because the IDF knows that those who don't go to the one-year religious academies could choose instead to go to a hesder yeshiva, which combines Torah study with shortened army service.

The IDF says it is not involved in the Defense Ministry's decision over how many students each institution is allotted.

A ministry official said it was true that "there is no equality."

"We have to look at the good of the system," he said. "Those who go to the secular academies all serve for three years, but the religious academies are dealing with a community that is pressured by hesder yeshivas" and the claim that Torah study should mean exemption from the draft, he added. "So we have to help them."

There are approximately 2,000 students who attend pre-military academies, and they are evenly split between religious and secular academies. About 2,000 more students spend their pre-army year doing volunteer work.