Probe finds army negligent, not driven by ulterior motives

IDF admits egregious failure to accurately tally ultra-Orthodox recruits

Senior officers, including Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, censured for their role in the years-long inflating of Haredi enlistment numbers

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion study at the Peles Military Base, in the northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion study at the Peles Military Base, in the northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday released its full investigation into the false reporting of ultra-Orthodox recruits over the course of seven years, finding major inconsistencies between the numbers it published during that period and the true totals. It admitted these gaps were the result of “gross negligence” on the part of the officers responsible for tallying the figures, the apathy of their commanders, and general disorder in the relevant databases.

The investigation found that not only had the military never reached the targets for ultra-Orthodox enlistment set for it by the government from 2014 to 2018, but also that the number of recruits from that community did not increase at all during the period in question, despite the IDF’s reports to the contrary, the head of the investigative committee, Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, told reporters Thursday.

“The investigative committee identified a severe systemic, professional and command failure,” the team wrote in its report.

For instance, in 2017, the IDF reported that it had recruited 3,070 ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, soldiers, when in fact only 1,374 recruits from that community joined the military that year. The rest did not meet the law’s definition of who is considered ultra-Orthodox, but were included anyway, the investigation found.

The 2.5-month probe did not find evidence that the military as an organization had intentionally tried to deceive the Knesset or the public with the false numbers or that the officers involved were motivated by political pressure or financial incentives. Rather, it found that the inaccuracies were caused mostly by disagreement over who is considered ultra-Orthodox under the law, along with gross negligence.

Outgoing head of Central Command Roni Numa (L) speaks at his exchange of command ceremony in East Jerusalem on March 7, 2018 as IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot looks on. (Screen capture/Ynet)

The investigation also found that there were no direct orders from senior officers to falsify numbers, though Numa acknowledged that junior officers may have felt “pressure to reach the targets.” He also said that if senior officers had more carefully monitored the tallying effort to ensure that it was accurate, that pressure would not have been an issue.

As a result of the investigation, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi decided to formally censure three senior officers involved in the matter, including — in a highly unusual move — the head of the IDF Manpower Directorate Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, for their failure to sufficiently oversee the calculation of the number of ultra-Orthodox recruits. By law, the military was required to report these statistics to the Knesset each year, as part of legislation meant to increase the number of Haredi soldiers.

The ultra-Orthodox community has historically enjoyed blanket exemptions from the army in favor of religious seminary studies, and many in the community shun military service, which is mandatory for other Jewish Israelis.

After the law allowing those exemptions was struck down in 2012, the government drafted new legislation and began setting rising annual quotas for enlistment, amid an outcry from the general public over the community not sharing in the burden of military service.

Commander of the IDF Manpower Directorate Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, center, and the head of the Manpower Directorate’s Planning and Manpower Management Division, Brig. Gen. Amir Vadamni, left, attend a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee in the Knesset on December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In April 2019, the IDF Manpower Directorate first realized that the statistics for Haredi enlistment were inaccurate, seeing significant differences between the tallies for 2018 from different departments within the unit. As a result, the head of the Manpower Directorate’s Planning and Manpower Management Division, Brig. Gen. Amir Vadamni, ordered an initial investigation into the matter, which found that the statistics had indeed been falsely reported over the course of several years.

The IDF attempted to keep that information secret until it had completely addressed the false reporting, but the story was leaked to Israel’s Kan broadcaster in December, prompting harsh public backlash against the military and accusations of a cover-up. The military has since said that it made a mistake in not acknowledging the discrepancies more quickly.

Shortly after the Kan report came out, Kohavi tasked Numa with investigating the issue, assisted by Malka Puterkovsky, an expert in Jewish law, and Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the founder of the ultra-Orthodox ZAKA emergency response service, as well as Brig. Gen. (res.) Rami Ben Ephraim.

This week, Numa presented his full 41-page report on the matter to Kohavi, in which he and the committee not only identified the problems that led to the falsely calculated numbers, but also included broader recommendations for both the military and lawmakers going forward, notably the creation of a national strategy regarding ultra-Orthodox enlistment.

Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion sit in a field at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Numa’s team found that the department responsible for calculating the ultra-Orthodox enlistment rates included “expanded definitions” of who was considered Haredi beyond those laid out in the law, resulting in massively inflated statistics.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice ruled that a soldier would be recognized as being ultra-Orthodox if they studied at a recognized Haredi institution for at least two years. Yet that year, the Manpower Directorate’s Haredi department included hundreds of people who had studied for only one year in an ultra-Orthodox school.

“The investigative committee determined that the tallying of the numbers was performed by the professional bodies within the Manpower Directorate using an expanded definition, which deviated from the legal criteria, consciously, deliberately and systematically,” the report said.

Though an imperfect definition — as it included large numbers of people who had never lived a Haredi lifestyle or no longer did — the criterion was meant to take the guesswork out of determining who was considered ultra-Orthodox.

However, the investigative committee found that the officers involved in tallying the Haredi enlistment believed this problematic definition — in which people who no longer live an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle were included while people who recently started to were not — meant that any number they calculated was inherently flawed, Numa said.

Soldiers study religious texts in the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox ‘Netzah Yehuda’ unit at the Peles Military Base in the northern Jordan valley, August 2013. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

As a result of the “dissonance” caused by the criteria, “the people doing the counting felt they were just making up numbers,” even when they were adhering to the legal definition of Haredi, he said.

Numa’s team also found negligent record-keeping and work methods by the Manpower Directorate department, resulting in some 400 people being added to the tally who do not meet the criteria for recognition as a male Haredi soldier under any definition of the term — including women and Muslim men.

“It’s unacceptable to have hundreds of mistakes in a pool of 3,000 people,” he said.

In addition, Numa said there were major flaws in the working relationship between the IDF and the Education Ministry, which was meant to provide information on which schools were recognized as Haredi.

Like Almoz, the former head of the Manpower Directorate’s Planning and Manpower Management Division, Brig. Gen. Eran Shani, also received an official censure on his record. The head of the Planning and Manpower Management Department, a colonel whose name cannot be published as he now serves in Military Intelligence, will receive both official censure and a delay of one year for any future promotion.

The former head of the Manpower Directorate’s Haredi department no longer serves in the IDF and does not perform reserve service and so he could not be punished, though the military said his actions warranted it. A legal adviser to the Manpower Directorate was not censured but was subjected to a disciplinary meeting for her failure to explain adequately to the relevant officers the criteria for who is considered ultra-Orthodox under the law.

Addressing the problem

In addition to finding the errors, Numa’s team made recommendations for how the military and the government ought to proceed on the issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription.

In the short term, the committee called for the military to overhaul its mechanisms for counting Haredi recruits and to stop reporting numbers to the public until the IDF believes they are accurate.

They said this will require developing better cooperation between the Defense and Education Ministries, creating a digital database, updating the list of Haredi institutions (which hasn’t been done since 2014), and improving oversight mechanisms.

The committee also recommended that the government further hone its definition of who is legally considered Haredi, though Numa said the team recognized this will likely take a significant amount of time.

More generally, the committee called for the development of a national strategy policy regarding ultra-Orthodox enlistment, to lay out precisely how the country wants to address the matter.

Meshi Zahav, the ZAKA founder who worked with the committee, referred to the situation as a balagan — a Hebrew word referring to a chaotic mess — which he said did not actually result in the conscription of actual Haredi recruits, but rather people who match a definition that is divorced from reality.

“The IDF hasn’t enlisted one yeshiveh bucher,” Meshi Zahav said, using the Yiddish term for a seminary student.

The committee’s other civilian member, Puterkovsky, said the military was woefully unprepared to accept large numbers of ultra-Orthodox troops, as they often had not studied basic math and other core secular curricula, forgoing them in favor of religious study.

“If the IDF is going to draft all the ultra-Orthodox, it will need to build four more havat hashomers, because there are Haredim who don’t know how to do arithmetic,” she said, referring to a specialized military base in northern Israel that helps soldiers from poor socioeconomic backgrounds.

Israeli politicians have struggled to hash out new rules regarding enlistment numbers and punishments for draft dodging, a main sticking point in failed coalition talks.

Indeed, Israel’s current political deadlock can be traced back to political wrangling over a bill that would regulate the enlistment of yeshiva students. In May, less than two months after voters appeared to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a mandate to form a new government, coalition talks collapsed because the secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party and ultra-Orthodox parties refused to budge on the bill.

The Defense Ministry-formulated bill being debated would have set minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would trigger financial sanctions on the yeshivas where the students study. At the same time, it would also formalize exemptions for the vast majority of yeshiva students.

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