IDF launches probe into false ultra-Orthodox draft numbers after exposé

IDF launches probe into false ultra-Orthodox draft numbers after exposé

Knesset panel to convene to discuss years-long inflation of enlistment statistics; army insists change in policy over who counts as Haredi led to incorrect tally

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)
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)

The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday announced it had launched an investigation into the years-long inflation of enlistment numbers of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, following a report on the matter by the Kan broadcaster.

According to the exposé, over the course of several years, the IDF published false numbers on the number of people joining the army from the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, population, sometimes doubling or tripling the actual figures, making it seem as though the military was closer to meeting the quotas set by law than it was.

In a statement, the IDF said it firmly rejected allegations that the inflated numbers were a concerted effort to deceive lawmakers and the public, but were the result of unclear methods for counting who is considered ultra-Orthodox.

The military said IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi tasked Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa with investigating the issue. Numa, who recently retired, will also determine the correct Haredi enlistment numbers for the years 2011 to 2018.

The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee also announced it would convene on Monday to discuss the inflated numbers, summoning representatives from the military and the Defense Ministry.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi speaks during an event honoring outstanding IDF reservists, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on July 1, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The military said the false numbers were discovered during an internal review several weeks ago and were immediately brought to the attention of Kohavi, though he only ordered Numa’s investigation a few days ago.

“The claim that the Haredi enlistment figures were fabricated is incorrect,” the IDF said. “An initial review indicated that there were discrepancies in the tallying process, but the source of this was not, in any way or form, an IDF-wide attempt to deceive with the numbers.”

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

Following the publication of the Kan report, the military maintained that the cause of the incorrect numbers was a change in the definition of who was considered ultra-Orthodox.

The IDF said that initially it was permitted to include both people who studied for two or more years in a school identified as Haredi and those who were deemed to live a “Haredi lifestyle” as being ultra-Orthodox for the purposes of their calculations. Later, only those who met the first criterion were allowed to be counted under the law.

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.

It was not immediately clear how the military had defined “Haredi lifestyle” for the purposes of its calculation. An IDF spokesperson said she was looking into the matter.

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 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. 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.

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

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 that it was steadily growing.

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

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.

From left, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, Maj. Gen. Hagai Topolanski and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot raise a toast at a ceremony in which Almoz received his major general’s rank and a promotion to take over for Topolanski as head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate on January 5, 2017, in the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters. (Israel Defense Forces/File)

Earlier, the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, told Kan public radio: “There isn’t a desire 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 falsification of numbers.”

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 were 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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