Contradictory claims swirled around the IDF’s induction center on Thursday. Army officers and MKs claimed that the army had just completed its largest-yet draft of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, but journalists and other eyewitnesses asserted that while some of the day’s 420 inductees may have come from very observant homes, none, at this stage in life, appeared to be ultra-Orthodox.
“It’s all harta barta (nonsense). Not a single ultra-Orthodox man was drafted today,” said Yossi Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox civilian employed by the IDF to promote army service among Haredim.
Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman, himself a highly observant Jew and a member of the Knesset committee working on a universal draft law, disputed this entirely. He said that watching the young men “in black kippot, tzitzit, and payot” go through the process of becoming soldiers brought tears to his eyes and that some of them faced alienation from their families for their decision. “I gave my card to some of the soldiers and told them they could come for Shabbat,” he told The Times of Israel. “I told them they’re my family now.”
The army did not allow the press access to the new recruits, most of whom will fill support roles in the Netzach Yehuda infantry battalion, but those glimpsed entering the base on Thursday, a day set aside exclusively for the ultra-Orthodox draft, did not appear to have left a very observant yeshiva in the recent past.
This summer’s draft comes amid rising tension over the matter of mandatory military service, an issue that has long been at the heart of secular-ultra-Orthodox tension.
Last year, a High Court of Justice ruling declared the Tal Law, a long-standing exemption from conscription for ultra-Orthodox men, to be unconstitutional. The parties who make up the current government have vowed to fulfill their election promise to enact a more equitable universal national service.
Those efforts, to be presented before Knesset for ratification during the upcoming winter session, have triggered both physical assaults — three soldiers in uniform were attacked in recent weeks in Jerusalem — and a war of words.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders contend that all talk of pending legislation, along with community-wide campaigns against service, have reduced the desire among congregants to serve in the army. But the IDF claims an uptick in the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers and widespread satisfaction among those already in active duty.
Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, commander of the IDF Manpower Directorate, told the visiting MKs that in total the IDF would voluntarily draft a record 2,000 ultra-Orthodox recruits this year. She and other manpower directorate officers stressed before the visiting MKs the need for ultra-Orthodox soldiers to serve, calling it “imperative” and noting that among Jews one in two women and one in four men do not serve in the IDF on account of religious observance.
The officers also spoke out against the planned cuts in the duration of compulsory service, saying that such measures were “inappropriate” at this time. The officers said that if the cuts to conscripted service would in fact be passed, as they believe will be the case, then female service will have to be lengthened, more women will have to be pushed toward combat service, more combat soldiers will have to extend their service, fewer recruits will be sent to the police and other organizations outside the army, and the army will have to keep closer tabs on those girls who opt out of service by claiming religious observance.
Their primary message, however, related to the ultra-Orthodox. The officers said that the number of Haredim serving in the IDF has increased sevenfold over the past several years and that a full 85 percent of ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the military today reported feeling “proud of their service.”
Former chief of the General Staff MK Shaul Mofaz, a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, stood alongside Barbivai after the briefing and chastened those who cast doubt on the Orthodoxy of the recruits. “You need to encourage them, not look through their tzitzit,” he said, referencing the Jewish ritual fringes. “I suggest that you not join the party.”
MK Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) conceded that the talk of legislative action “may have created a sort of regression” in the willingness of true ultra-Orthodox men to join the army, but encouraged the journalists perched outside the recruitment center to cheer those who enlisted.
His fellow party member MK Yoni Chetboun — a reserves brigade commander — cited the Netzach Yehuda battalion’s operational activities in the West Bank and said the battalion “is a success story, exclamation point. And you, your job, is to cheer, cheer, cheer.”
The cluster of reporters looked unconvinced, with one telling the MKs, “The army is running a program that brings (wayward ultra-Orthodox) back into a fold, and that’s very nice, but there were no ultra-Orthodox drafted today.”
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report