'We didn't fulfill our mission'

IDF again misses ultra-Orthodox draft goal, gets record female combat soldiers

As this year’s enlistment comes to a close, military reveals most trends holding steady, braces for manpower shortages in 2018

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs 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 this year again failed to reach the goal for ultra-Orthodox military enlistment set by the government, falling 20 percent short of the target. They made up for it with a record number of women joining combat units, an army official said Sunday.

“We didn’t fulfill our mission,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The government set a goal for the army of enlisting 3,200 ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, soldiers in 2017. “We enlisted 2,850,” said the official.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has been a contentious one in Israel, with more-extreme members of the Haredi community carrying out weekly, and even daily, protests against the draft.

However, this past year, the military saw a record-high 2,700 women joining combat units. This represents nearly a fivefold increase since 2012, when 547 women served in combat roles.

Illustrative: Male and female combat soldiers of the Caracal Battalion train to fight an Islamic State assault on southern Israel in late March 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Another officer told reporters that the current level of female combat enlistment is expected to remain constant for the time being.

The official said the military also saw the trend of religious women enlisting in the army continue to increase. He did not, however, offer statistics to demonstrate that.

The army is preparing for a substantial drop in its total number of soldiers beginning in 2018, as a result of the recent reduction to male service time, from 36 to 32 months.

If a proposal to further reduce army service for men to 30 months goes forward — it has already been approved in the Knesset — that will cause another downturn in the mid-2020s, according to army forecasts.

However, the military is also expecting a significant increase in the number of draftees in 10 years’ time, bringing a separate set of challenges.

A significant percentage of soldiers in the 2017 draft dates expressed opposition to their military service, though the officer said there was little correlation to the actual drop-out rate.

“Forty percent of the people we sent to combat [units] don’t want to be combat [soldiers],” the official said.

In the past, the military used to report the motivation levels of incoming troops to serve in combat units, which were on a steady decline. The army will no longer release those figures, instead looking not at the soldiers’ statements, but at their actions, the official said.

In the past year, he said, the army saw a far lower dropout and refusal rates compared to 2016.

Yaakov Selavan, a former officer in the Armored Corps, speaks with a newly inducted soldier who was jailed after refusing to serve in the tank brigades, in the army’s Prison 6, on November 30, 2016. (Courtesy Yaakov Selavan)

Last year saw the shocking and curious case of a mass refusal to serve in the Armored Corps. In one week of November 2016, some 86 soldiers refused to join tank brigades.

There were no such cases of that level this year, he said.

“The buses are full, the number of refusals are low,” he said.

However, the interest in serving in the Armored Corps, as well as Combat Engineering, Artillery and Combat Intelligence, remains lackluster, due to the perception in Israel that service in those units is less glamorous than that of the combat infantry brigades, like the Paratroopers, Givati and Nahal, or in the Border Police, which operates extensively in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

According to the official, in every combat unit that accepts both men and women, save for one, the majority of the unit is female.

Illustrative. Male and female soldiers of the Bardelas Battalion preparing for urban warfare training on an early foggy morning, near Nitzanim in the Arava area of Southern Israel, on July 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The border defense battalions — Caracal, Lions of the Jordan Valley, Lavi and Bardelas (or Cheetah, in English) — as well as the Home Front Command’s search and rescue battalions, and the Artillery Corps’ mixed-gender units, are all approximately 60%-65% female. The one exception, the Border Police, is approximately 35% female.

Over the past few years, despite opposition from some leading Orthodox rabbis, the number of religious women going into the military has more than doubled, from 935 in 2010 to 2,159 in 2015.

A female IDF soldier uses her cell phone to take a selfie as ultra-Orthodox Jews take part in a demonstration in Jerusalem against the conscription of members of the ultra-Orthodox community to the IDF on October 19, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

“If you ask me, it’s because women go home and tell other girls, ‘You can serve in the army and still stay religious,'” the official said.

Women are entitled to an exemption from military service if they declare themselves religious.

Interestingly, due to the relative ease with which people can pretend to be more devout than they are, the army employs soldiers whose job it is to locate such fibbers, scanning social media pages for posts on Shabbat or finding other apparent transgressions of Jewish law.

Speaking to the military’s failure to reach the goals for ultra-Orthodox enlistment, the official noted that the target was not set by the military, but by the government.

He noted that this year’s 2,850 ultra-Orthodox recruits represent a 15% increase over 2016, though the army also failed to hit the mark set for it by the government last year.

The official would not say if he thought the military would reach the levels required for 2018, but said that there would nevertheless be more ultra-Orthodox soldiers serving in the army next year.

“Do I expect an increase for the next year? Yes, without a doubt. For a simple reason: There’s a population increase. We’re opening more and more positions [for ultra-Orthodox soldiers]. We’re doing all we can to make things more accessible for Haredi soldiers,” he said.

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)

In September, the High Court of Justice struck down a 2015 amendment that helped keep ultra-Orthodox men from having to serve in the army.

Ultra-Orthodox seminary students have been largely exempt from Israel’s military draft since then-defense minister David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 students from service in 1949 on the grounds that “their studies are their craft.” Exceptional young artists and athletes are often granted exemptions by the Defense Ministry on the grounds that two or three years of military service could hold them back dramatically.

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