IDF officer says was pressed ‘to fix the numbers’ on ultra-Orthodox enlistment

IDF officer says was pressed ‘to fix the numbers’ on ultra-Orthodox enlistment

Officer in Manpower Directorate tells Israeli TV that pressure to meet conscription targets came from higher-ups; general denies inflated figures result of ‘malicious intentions’

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)

An officer in the IDF’s Manpower Directorate told Channel 13 television news on Wednesday that he faced pressure from higher-ups to inflate annual figures on the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts.

The unnamed officer, who the network said was a low-ranking official, said the manpower unit had been under pressure for years to meet enlistment targets and “to fix the numbers.”

They called this the “art of presenting the figures,” the officer added.

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

According to the exposé, over the course of several years, the IDF published false figures 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.

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

Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, commander of the Manpower Directorate, told Channel 13 on Wednesday that officials discovered several weeks ago that “something about the numbers didn’t add up.”

Almoz denied the inflated numbers were due to “malicious intentions,” saying they were likely caused by “excess motivation.”

The military said the false numbers were discovered during an internal review several weeks ago and were immediately brought to the attention of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, who then appointed a former head of Central Command, Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa, to investigate the mistake.

“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, shape or form, an IDF-wide attempt to deceive with the numbers.”

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)

Almoz said Kohavi had tasked Numa with probing what went wrong and how to address the mistake, and with producing and publicizing the correct Haredi enlistment numbers for the years 2011 to 2018.

Meanwhile, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, chaired by Blue and White MK (and former head of the army) Gabi Ashkenazi, announced it would convene next Monday to discuss the army’s admission that it had released inflated Haredi enlistment figures, including in official statements to the Knesset.

The faulty numbers, which were calculated by the IDF Manpower Directorate, were sent each year to the IDF chief of staff, the defense minister and other relevant government bodies, and were 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 draft rules.

Israeli soldiers guard at a bus stop in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem on October 19, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 religiously observant.

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.

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 a jump of several hundred more recruits each year, until a quota of 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 this year.

Moti Almoz (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

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

In 2011, for example, the report said the military reported 1,200 recruits, while the actual number was 600. Since then, the figures were consistently inflated to make it seem as though recruitment was steadily rising.

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

On Sunday, the Haaretz daily cited as-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.

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.

Illustrative: Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (left), Shas leader Aryeh Deri (center), and United Torah Judaism chief Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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.

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