‘WE NEEDED to address the needs of haredi boys who want to remain in an environment of serious Torah study, but at the same time do significant army service, contribute to their country and prepare for life after the army with the ability to support their families.’.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the second time in two months, Israel is going to the polls over the same issue: Haredi enlistment in the Israeli Defense Forces. But does the IDF really need them?
Last week, the Knesset was dissolved after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a coalition with ultra-Orthodox (haredi) parties along with Yisael Beytenu, led by former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, partly because of disagreements over the draft law.
The ultra-Orthodox community, which has historically been exempt from military service, has held regular demonstrations against the draft. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, religious communities who did not serve in the military and instead studied Torah were a small fraction of the total Israeli Jewish population, but their numbers have been growing steadily.
And in a country where all other Jewish males and females must serve in the military, the exemptions and discourse to change them have become controversial. Reforms passed in the Knesset in 2014 that aimed to gradually increase ultra-Orthodox recruitment has been met with stiff opposition from many in the haredi community.
Haredi men who are opposed to serving say that serving in Israel’s military – while Jewish – is not religious, and would not allow them to lead a full religious life while in uniform. The roles of women in the IDF and the close proximity of the two genders is another reason why many religious men chose not to serve.
Nevertheless, thousands of haredim volunteer to serve in the IDF, despite there being many who are shunned and disowned by their families and communities for serving due to the reasons mentioned above.
Last year, Liberman – who was defense minister at the time – drafted a new bill that proposed setting annual enlistment targets of the haredi community, which would increase each year as the community grows. There would also be financial penalties against Yeshivas if the targets weren’t met.
While that bill passed a first reading in the Knesset, an election was called in December partly over the fact that haredi parties would not agree to it.
They thought Liberman’s plan was too extreme. But was it? Let’s look at the numbers.
While the IDF is grappling with a potential threat of troop shortages following a 2015 amendment to the national draft law and cut the service time of soldiers, the number of haredi soldiers enlisting should the draft law be passed would not be exponential.
Liberman’s plan would have initially required an estimated 3,350 ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the IDF with another 650 doing national service. The numbers would then increase by 8% each year for three years to have some 5,740 ultra-Orthodox men serving in the military with another 1,100 doing national service after a decade.
According to data released by the Israeli army, there is an upward trend in the recruitment of haredi soldiers, with a 50% increase in recent years.
A Knesset Research and Information Center (RIC) report from last year also revealed that as of August 2017, some 7,250 haredi soldiers enlisted in the IDF. Almost half of the ultra-Orthodox who enlisted joined combat units, while another 19% served in general military units.
With the increase of haredi soldiers, the army has been working to accommodate ultra-Orthodox soldiers, with the Nahal Haredi battalion having some 1,000 religious soldiers that spend half of their day learning while serving in a fully segregated environment. There is also a volunteer haredi computer unit within the Israel Air Force.
But every ultra-religious framework costs a significant amount of money for the military, almost double the cost of a secular soldier. According to the RIC report, a third of those haredi soldiers who enlisted were defined as lone soldiers on whom the military invested tens of millions of shekels in aid programs.
The increase of women joining combat units also limits the military, as many religious soldiers refuse to serve alongside women.
So does the IDF really need them? Or is Israel going to elections, again, over something that the IDF may not actually need.
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