IDF admits it published false ultra-Orthodox enlistment tallies for years

Military reported to have purposely doubled and even tripled the actual number of recruited soldiers to meet quotas; army denies trying to deceive, says discrepancy was a ‘mistake’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Illustrative. Soldiers belonging to the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda unit. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative. Soldiers belonging to the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda unit. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces admitted Wednesday that it had published inflated numbers of ultra-Orthodox enlistment for years, after a report in Hebrew-language media claimed officers had purposely lied to cover up slumping recruitment tallies.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, officials in the army department responsible for tracking enlistment numbers in the Haredi community have been lying about how many of them join up, doubling and even tripling the tally, to make is seem like the military was meeting the quotas set by the law.

The faulty numbers were sent each year to the IDF chief of staff the defense minister, and any other relevant government bodies, and published in official reports.

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.

However, since the law allowing the exemption was struck down in 2012, the government began setting rising annual quotas for enlistment, amid an outcry from the general public over the community not sharing the burden of military service. The military was told to recruit 2,000 Haredi soldiers in 2013 — out of an estimated annual pool of 30,000-40,000 eligible ultra-Orthodox teenagers. That required number increased by several hundred each year, up to 3,200 in 2016, at which point the government stopped issuing quotas. The IDF never reached the goals set for it by the government.

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

On Sunday, the Haaretz daily cited as-of-yet unreleased recruitment figures gathered by the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, reporting that ultra-Orthodox enlistment had declined precipitously in 2018, by 20 percent, compared with the previous year, in the first drop in more than a decade.

The figures reported by Haaretz showed 2,440 ultra-Orthodox soldiers inducted into the armed forces in 2018, a shortfall of 800 compared to the government’s recruitment goal for the year. In contrast, 3,070 ultra-Orthodox soldiers were recruited in 2017, according to figures now thought to have been faulty.

It is not known if the 2018 numbers were also cooked, but the year marked the first since 2007 that Haredi recruitment fell, amid intensive efforts by the army to boost enlistment, including the creation of a number of Haredi units in the IDF, such as the Netzah Yehuda (Nahal Haredi) combat battalion.

According to the Kan report, which did not cite a source, between the years 2011-2017 the IDF included in its tally of ultra-Orthodox soldiers recruits who were not Haredi, some of whom were not even religious.

File photo of soldiers from Nahal Haredi, an ultra-Orthodox battalion in the IDF (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash90)
Illustrative. Soldiers from Nahal Haredi, an ultra-Orthodox battalion in the Israel Defense Forces (Abir Sultan/Flash90, File)

In 2011, for example, the report said the military reported 1,200 recruits, while the actual number was 600. Since then, it has inflated the number to make it seem it was steadily growing.

In 2017, the actual number was 1,300 but the department in charge of Haredi enlistment reported 3,070.

“Recently, a mistake was discovered in the count of the ultra-Orthodox soldiers in recent years. Lessons have been learned regarding the criteria for the tally and regarding the determination of the body in charge of counting the Haredi soldiers in the IDF,” the army said in a statement carried by Kan.

The numbers were allegedly inflated to silence criticism that efforts to enlist ultra-Orthodox soldiers were failing.

At the end of last year, a new administrative division, headed by Lt. Col. Telem Hazan, was formed by the military and took charge of reporting the number of ultra-Orthodox recruits. A careful tally yielded the number 1,650 — half of the previous year. Hazan was reportedly asked to “round up” the numbers to make them match the number for 2017.

It was not clear why the discrepancy in the numbers reported by Kan for 2018 — 1,650 — and cited by Haaretz — 2,440 — was so large.

The army said that “the data for the enlistment year of 2018 (which ended in June 2019) have not yet been finalized.”

Following the publication of the report on Wednesday morning, the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, told Kan public radio: “There isn’t a will to inflate the numbers, it stemmed from our interpretation of who is ultra-Orthodox. It is possible that people made mistakes, but there was no malice and definitely not forgery of numbers.”

Labor-Gesher party leader Amir Peretz told Kan that the revelation could skew policy decisions regarding recruitment numbers: “I really hope that when we held the discussions on ultra-Orthodox enlistment, the data we had in front of us was accurate. If we made decisions in the past based on false data or data that nobody knew how to quantify, this is severe. We cannot allow for a culture of lies to be part of the outlook of the Defense Ministry and the IDF.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men clash with police during a protest against the army draft in Bnei Brak, November 20, 2017. Yossi Zeliger/Flash90

Israel’s current political deadlock can be traced back to political wrangling over 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 after Avigdor Liberman and his secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party refused to join the government.

The sticking point was a draft law obligating Haredi men to participate in Israel’s mandatory military draft. Ultra-Orthodox parties wanted to soften the text of the law. Liberman insisted he would not join the government unless the law was passed in its current form.

The Defense Ministry-drafted 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.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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