Ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda battalion marks 20th anniversary

It began as a small company of 32 troops in 1999 and has grown to thousands of soldiers

An ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jewish man walks past Israeli soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Haredi infantry battalion during their swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jewish man walks past Israeli soldiers of the Netzah Yehuda Haredi infantry battalion during their swearing-in ceremony in Jerusalem
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Amid a controversy surrounding the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers serving in the IDF, thousands of combat soldiers marked the 20th anniversary of the ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda battalion.
The troops – serving in the Kfir Brigade, the Tomer platoon in the Givati Brigade, the Chetz platoon in the Paratroopers Brigade, as well as the Defenders of the Negev platoon in the Air Force – gathered in Tel Aviv on the first night of Hanukkah to mark the founding of the unique battalion.
The event, which also included educational tours throughout the day, was attended by The event was held in the presence of the Defense Ministry Director-General, Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Udi Adam, the Head of the Manpower Directorate Maj.-Gen. Moti Almoz, former Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Rabbis of Netzah Yehuda, and the founder of the Nahal Haredi, Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Yehuda Duvdevani.
Representatives of bereaved families of ultra-Orthodox combat soldiers fighters who fell during their service also attended.
“You are the bridge between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular in the State of Israel,” Duvdevani said at the event. “The opponents of the ultra-Orthodox society must remember that when they sit safely at the Sabbath table, you keep them safe.”
Duvdevani called on leaders of the ultra-Orthodox to give the soldiers the blessing for their journey ahead.
“The IDF and the state need them. They are the future. Their contribution is not only to the military and the state. Their contribution is also to the ultra-Orthodox society to which they belong,” he said.
When it was created in 1999, it began as a small company of 32 troops but has now transformed into one of the largest battalions in the IDF with religious soldiers from a wide range of sects ranging from ultra-Orthodox Israelis to new immigrants to those who identify with the radical Hilltop Youth settler movement.
But according to a December report by KAN News, over the past five years the military has been pushing the recruitment of ultra-Orthodox and has been reporting that the number of recruits doubled and even tripled over the years.
In 2011, for example, the IDF reported that 1,200 ultra-Orthodox men were drafted when in fact only 600 enlisted. Six years later, in 2017, the military stated that 3,070 haredi men were drafted when in fact only 1,300 enlisted.
To boost the numbers, the military added secular recruits to the list of ultra-Orthodox. Although it was previously thought that as much as 35% of haredi men of military age were serving in the IDF, in reality less than 15% are serving in the military.
But despite the controversy, due to the growing number of ultra-Orthodox in the military the IDF recently set up two additional frameworks for infantry soldiers in the Paratroopers and Givati Brigades, which recruit 100 combat soldiers each year.
Soldiers who don’t serve in combat roles have also been integrated into the Air Force in positions which provides employment following their service, such as repairing damaged airstrips or driving large trucks.
Of those serving, 30% (around 700) are lone soldiers – both from abroad and from communities where their decision to serve in the military forces them from their homes.
As combat soldiers they serve for 32 months, which include two years of active military service and eight months of schooling to prepare them to integrate into the civilian job market once they are discharged.
The battalion has also lost a number of soldiers in terror attacks and military operations, including 20-year-old Staff Sgt. Yovel Mor Yosef and 19-year-old Sgt. Yosef Cohen who were killed in a terror attack in the West Bank last year.
In addition to ultra-Orthodox men joining the military, there’s been a growth of religious women serving in the IDF.
While most Israeli women serve two years in the IDF, religious women are eligible to forgo army service in exchange for one or two years of national service in the civilian sector. Though most religious women chose to do national service out of concern that the military atmosphere might have a negative effect on their faith and way of life, there has been a significant rise of religious women choosing to serve.
A 2017 study released by the Knesset Information and Research Center found that the number of women from the national-religious education system who have voluntarily enlisted to serve in the IDF has increased from 900 in 2011 to just over 2,400 in 2016.
According to Aluma, an organization which works to help religious women who choose to serve, it’s a trend that’s here to stay. Aluma CEO Yifat Sela told The Jerusalem Post that there’s been a huge social change in Israeli society as well as in the military itself.