Watchdog chides Defense Ministry for again missing ultra-Orthodox draft goal
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Watchdog chides Defense Ministry for again missing ultra-Orthodox draft goal

Coming a day after initial approval of controversial conscription bill, comptroller report also finds failings in government’s attempts to increase enlistment among Bedouin

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

Illustrative: Police remove ultra-Orthodox demonstrators who are blocking a road during a protest against army conscription in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)
Illustrative: Police remove ultra-Orthodox demonstrators who are blocking a road during a protest against army conscription in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2018. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Gharabli)

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira criticized the Defense Ministry for failing to reach the ultra-Orthodox enlistment numbers required by the government for four years in a row, in a new report published on Wednesday.

The watchdog’s investigation focused only on the years 2013 to 2016, during which time the gap between the required conscription numbers for members of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community and actual figures grew from 4.1 percent to 11 percent.

The report did not include 2017, even though that year the army also missed the goal.

In 2013, the army was required to enlist 2,000 ultra-Orthodox men, but got 1,972. In 2016, the government set a goal of 3,200 Haredi inductees, but the military missed it by 350.

The topic of ultra-Orthodox enlistment has been a contentious one in Israel, with more-extreme members of the Haredi community carrying out regular protests against the draft.

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)

Ultra-Orthodox seminary students have been largely exempt from Israel’s military draft since then-defense minister David Ben-Gurion exempted 400 students from service in 1949 on the grounds that “their studies are their craft.”

Over the years, the High Court of Justice has struck down a number of changes to the laws regarding ultra-Orthodox exemptions from military service, finding them to be unfair.

The issue nearly brought down the government this week as the ultra-Orthodox members of the coalition butt heads with other parties, notable Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, over a new version of the law.

Shapira also looked at the enlistment numbers of Bedouin Israelis, finding them to be lower than desired by the government.

The comptroller ascribed a number of causes to this situation, recognizing that part of the problem lies in the fact that the factors are myriad and fall under the areas of responsibility of multiple government bodies, including education, housing and “difficulties integrating into Israeli society.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center-right, meets with Bedouin leaders during a ceremony commemorating the contributions of Bedouin soldiers to Israel’s security in the Galilee on September 11, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Shapira called on the Defense Ministry to work together with the ministers of education, construction and finance in order to address these issues together.

The comptroller report also considered the army’s Nahal program — not to be confused with the infantry brigade of the same name — which was originally created in 1948. Its original mission was to allow young Israelis to serve in the military while simultaneously establishing agricultural settlements in the nascent State of Israel.

Over time, however, the program has changed dramatically, with participants no longer acting as farmers, but as teachers. This development occurred despite Nahal’s purpose being defined in law as explicitly connected to “agriculture or pioneering.”

As this is no longer the purpose of the Nahal, Shapira called on the defense minister to reevaluate the program and determine its future.

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