Senior officers from the military’s Manpower Directorate were called before the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday to explain significant discrepancies recently revealed in the numbers of ultra-Orthodox recruits.
Last week, the Kan public broadcaster reported that for years the Israel Defense Forces had published inflated numbers for ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, draftees, sometimes two or three times the actual figure.
In response to the outcry, IDF chief Aviv Kohavi ordered a full investigation of the matter, to be led by a recently released major general, Roni Numa.
During Monday’s 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.”
Last week, 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.
Almoz said the military had yet to complete its investigation into the matter. The Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which is tasked with overseeing Haredi enlistment, is planning to hold a follow-up session once Numa submits his report to Kohavi.
“We’ve decided to hold two hearings, one now and one at the end of Roni Numa’s investigation,” said committee chairman MK Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White), a former IDF chief of staff.
Ashkenazi 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.
Democratic Union MK Yair Golan, a former deputy chief of staff, recommended the IDF take the issue seriously and called for a thorough investigation into the matter, which he said “made the military look like a liar.”
Beginning his remarks, Almoz rejected claims that the inflated numbers began under his predecessors.
“I am responsible for the incident, just me,” he said.
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.
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.
Vadamni said he ordered a colonel to look into the matter and cross-check the figures.
“I find in my investigation that the numbers reported in 2017 were inaccurate,” he 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.
Vadamni said the task of tallying the number of Haredi recruits is a complicated affair, requiring combining and parsing various databases from disparate sources.
“The process of collecting the figures, which appears simple, is actually very complicated. I’m not saying that we’re okay; I’m just saying that going through the figures is complicated,” he said.
Vadamni added that part of the problem was gray areas; for instance, people who do not meet the legal definition but do live a Haredi lifestyle, or people who only studied in an ultra-Orthodox school for one and a half years, not two.
“There are people who don’t meet the criteria, but who are Haredi,” Vadamni said.
Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah quickly rejected the officer’s comment.
“No, you can’t say that!” Shelah said, stressing the importance of the IDF adhering to legal definitions.
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.