IDF thinks it recruited 1,788 ultra-Orthodox men in 2018, but isn’t sure

Military releases Haredi enlistment figures but says it can’t guarantee accuracy, after years in which it published false numbers

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

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox IDF soldiers at the Peles Military Base in the Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox IDF soldiers at the Peles Military Base in the Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday released fresh statistics on ultra-Orthodox enlistment for July 2018 to December 2019, but preemptively stressed that the figures are likely inaccurate — an acknowledgment of a scandal that erupted last year after the military was found to have repeatedly published false enlistment tallies.

According to the military’s assessment, which it said was inherently flawed, 1,788 ultra-Orthodox — or Haredi — men joined the army during its 2018 enlistment year, from July 2018 to June 2019. Another 983 enlisted during the first half of its 2019 enlistment year, from July 2019 to December 2019, it said.

The military has not been given ultra-Orthodox enlistment goals since 2016 — so it can’t be said to have missed its target — but the figures released Tuesday fall far short of the numbers previously required of it by the government. In 2016, the last year a requirement was given, the military was meant to draft 3,200 Haredi Jews.

Under law, the IDF is required to present its tallies of ultra-Orthodox enlistment to the government each year.

“In light of the fact that the duty to report is anchored in law, the IDF presented its reports to [Defense Minister Benny Gantz]. It should be stressed in advance and unequivocally that the IDF does not have the ability to present an accurate report,” the military said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, right, meets with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, center, and Northern Command chief Amir Baram in northern Israel on June 2, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The IDF’s report came hours after Gantz asked the High Court of Justice to postpone its deadline for the passage of legislation regulating military service for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population.

The Haredi community has historically enjoyed blanket deferrals from the army in favor of religious seminary studies, and many of its members shun military service, which is mandatory for all other Jewish men and many Jewish women, though exemptions are often given for women to perform national service instead. However, there is opposition to the arrangement from many in the broader population who want the ultra-Orthodox to help shoulder the burden of defending the country.

Multiple versions of an ultra-Orthodox draft law have been advanced by the Knesset and knocked down by the High Court of Justice in a decade-long legal and political saga. None of the versions of the bill have required across-the-board enlistment by Haredi men but have instead been formulated to legally allow as many of them to avoid service as possible. They have repeatedly been found by the court to be in violation of the country’s equality laws.

The IDF said that it planned to discuss the issue of Haredi enlistment with Gantz “in the coming days.”

Last December, the Kan public broadcaster revealed that the IDF had for years presented false statistics to the government and the public on Haredi enlistment. An internal investigation, led by a recently retired general, found that the manpower unit that calculated the figures had been grossly negligent, that the databases the IDF relied upon were incorrect and that the commanders responsible for the matter ignored it.

Religious Jewish soldiers attend an IDF swearing-in ceremony on May 26, 2012. (Archive photo: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

There was also confusion over who qualifies as ultra-Orthodox in terms of military enlistment. In 2014, to avoid this uncertainty, the government determined that anyone who studied in a recognized Haredi institution for two years would be considered ultra-Orthodox.

In its statement Tuesday, the IDF said the current inability to verify accurate numbers comes from the fact that the underlying data is drawn from the education system, which lies outside its purview.

“The inability to ensure the accuracy of the numbers comes mainly from the fact that most of the data needed is related to studies prior to enlistment, and this is not in the IDF’s possession but is instead given to it by government officials, meaning the IDF cannot check its veracity,” the military said.

Israel’s year and a half of political deadlock, resolved last month, can be traced back to wrangling over the enlistment of yeshiva students.

Former minister Avigdor Liberman (right) is hosted by former minister of health Yaakov Litzman, on June 18, 2017. (Shlomi Cohen/FLASH90)

Last May, less than two months after voters appeared to give Netanyahu a mandate to form a new government, coalition talks collapsed. The sticking point was the latest version of the bill regulating the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox men.

Haredi parties wanted to soften the text of the law, while Avigdor Liberman, head of the secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, insisted he would not join the government unless the law was passed in its existing form.

The Defense Ministry-drafted bill then 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 overwhelming majority of yeshiva students.

The next version of the bill is expected to be softened, as the current coalition government is still dependent on the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have in the past threatened to bolt unless dramatic changes were made to the legislation.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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