IDF head promises reckoning over misreported Haredi draft figures

IDF head promises reckoning over misreported Haredi draft figures

Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi vows to learn and improve from scandal in which numbers were seemingly inflated; warns Iran entrenching deeper in Syria and Lebanon

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

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at an award ceremony at a military base north of Tel Aviv on December 16, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks at an award ceremony at a military base north of Tel Aviv on December 16, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Army chief Aviv Kohavi on Monday called a recently revealed case in which the Israel Defense Forces inflated the numbers of its ultra-Orthodox recruits a deep violation of the trust between the military and Israeli society, warning that any intentional efforts to falsify the statistics would be dealt with harshly.

“Presenting things incorrectly is a violation of the contract of trust that exists between the IDF and Israeli society, who entrusts us with its sons and daughters,” Kohavi said during a ceremony in which he gave awards to exceptional units.

The case was brought to light earlier this month, leading to widespread criticism of the military. The IDF maintains that there was no concerted effort to deceive the public and that the majority of the discrepancy came from a change in criteria for who is considered ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, under the law. Kohavi ordered a full investigation of the matter, tasking a recently released major general, Roni Numa, with leading the probe.

“Anywhere we find a mistake, we will learn and we will improve. Anywhere we find negligence or intention [to deceive], we will act harshly. In the areas of honesty and reliability, there is no room and there never will be room for compromise. There is not and there never will be room for cutting corners or looking the other way,” Kohavi said.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, left, presents an award to an officer during a ceremony at a military base north of Tel Aviv on December 16, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The army chief also discussed the security threats facing the country, warning that Iran is expanding its military presence to Israel’s north.

Kohavi said the IDF was “one of the most active militaries in the world, if not the most active. The IDF operates day and night on many fronts, which keep expanding.

“The Iranian arms are going deeper into Syria and Lebanon. The number of enemies we have is greater than the number of fronts,” he said.

On December 4, the Kan public broadcaster reported that for years the IDF had published inflated numbers for Haredi draftees, sometimes two or three times the actual figure.

Following the revelation, last Monday senior officers from the military’s Manpower Directorate were called before the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to update lawmakers on the matter.

During the meeting, the head of the Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, revealed that in one year, some 300 people were added to the military’s tally of ultra-Orthodox troops despite not being members of that community. However, he maintained that the other discrepancies were the result of a mistake relating to a change in the definition of who is considered Haredi.

“They definitely don’t need to be in the tally,” he said. “It could have been a mistake, an earnest error.”

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)

The week before, an officer in the Manpower Directorate, speaking anonymously, told Channel 13 TV news that he faced pressure from higher-ups to “to fix the numbers” and meet ultra-Orthodox enlistment targets.

Committee chairman MK Gabi Ashkenazi of the Blue and White party, a former IDF chief of staff, rapped the military for not coming forward about the discrepancy immediately after it was discovered. Having the information instead leak to the media harmed the military’s image, he said.

Blue and White MK and chairman of the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Gabi Ashkenazi, leads a committee discussion on the number of ultra-Orthodox army recruits, in the Knesset, on December 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the Manpower Directorate’s Planning and Manpower Management Division, Brig. Gen. Amir Vadamni, rejected the implication that the military had intentionally sought to deceive the public by inflating enlistment numbers.

“It’s important for me to say in this august forum: We are not liars or fabricators or number inflaters. Once we discovered the discrepancies, we laid it out on the table,” Vadamni said.

With the passage of a new draft bill requiring increased Haredi enlistment in 2012, the military was given specific goals each year, beginning in 2013 with 2,000 and increasing each year to 3,200 in 2016, out of an annual pool of 30,000-40,000 potential ultra-Orthodox recruits. The military never reached the goals set for it, missing the target numbers by several dozen to several hundred.

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)

The brigadier general said the discrepancies were discovered under his initiative.

According to Vadamni and Almoz, the issue was discovered as the Manpower Directorate was collecting the statistics for 2018.

“During the collection of numbers for 2018, we stopped the process. We understood that something in the numbers doesn’t add up,” Almoz said.

According to the generals, the primary source of the discrepancy was a change in the definition of who is considered ultra-Orthodox.

Initially, the military did not have a legally designated definition. As such, the IDF included in its figures both people who studied in schools recognized as Haredi for at least two years and people who otherwise lived a “Haredi lifestyle,” a military spokesperson said last week. In 2014, the Knesset offered specific criteria for who is considered Haredi, namely that they studied in an ultra-Orthodox institution for at least two years.

Despite the legal change, the military said it accidentally continued including people who seemed to be Haredi, but did not actually meet the criteria.

Almoz said it was not yet clear how many people that had been included in its figures were not considered Haredi under the relevant law.

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

Illustrative: Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with Israeli police during a protest in Jerusalem on April 10, 2014, following the arrest of a Haredi draft-dodger. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

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.

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

Indeed, 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 because the secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party and ultra-Orthodox parties refused to budge on the law.

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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