The devil in the numbers: IDF’S miscounting of ultra-Orthodox conscripts

Middle Israel: Neyanyahu's strategic asset is, for most Israelis, a strategic liability

POLITICIANS MODIFIED the Conscription Law by creating annual draft quotas, whose monitoring by the IDF has now been proven flawed (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
POLITICIANS MODIFIED the Conscription Law by creating annual draft quotas, whose monitoring by the IDF has now been proven flawed
Ordered to “take a census of the people” (Samuel II, 24:2), General Joab set out to fulfill King David’s command, despite wondering “why should my Lord King want this?”
“In Israel,” he reported nine months on, “there were 800,000 soldiers ready to draw the sword, and the men of Judah numbered 500,000,” meaning the aim was to count troops, the way the IDF did in recent years when asked how many of its recruits were ultra-Orthodox men.
Fortunately, this week’s brouhaha following revelations that the IDF miscounted its ultra-Orthodox troops is nothing like the aftermath of David’s census – a pestilence that took 70,000 lives. Even so, what David’s head count did physically, the IDF’s head count does politically and, while at it, underscores the need for the broad government that our politicians are failing to form.
Just why David’s decision deserved such an angry response remains unclear.
Moses showed the way around the prohibition to count people by making the counted pay money, so the census counted coins rather than people (Exodus 30:11ff.).
Counting people can indeed be morally dangerous – it might objectify the citizens and intoxicate their leaders – but this doesn’t explain why God “incited David” to make the sin for which blameless people died, a theological riddle only partly addressed by an alternative report that it was not God but “Satan” that “incited David to number Israel” (Chronicles I, 21:1).
Yes, counting people is a prerequisite of modern governance, but it still involves flirting with Satan, as we concede whenever we change “the devil is in the details” to “the devil is in the numbers.”
In this week’s case the devil was not in the numbers, nor even in the people who manipulated them, but in the politicians who designed the untenable reality beyond them.
THE IDF’S miscounting of its ultra-Orthodox conscripts began already in 2011, when the conscription of 600 was reported as 1,200, a pattern that returned two years ago, when 1,650 became 3,070.
The IDF’s response to Israel Radio’s scoop was sincere and professional. First, it admitted there were miscounts. Then it said 2018’s figures are still under review. And lastly it said the errors stemmed from a flawed counting formula, and not from a deliberate attempt to inflate numbers.
The error-excuse makes sense, because the counters defined as ultra-Orthodox any teenager who attended an ultra-Orthodox school for at least two years after age 14. That included conscripts who left ultra-Orthodoxy, and even ones who became secular.
Not all accepted this explanation, most notably Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, who claims that the misreporting was not accidental, and that there is a broader culture of misreporting in the IDF.
Brick, until recently the IDF ombudsman, may or may not be right about his criticism of the military’s administrative culture, but in this particular case the IDF is clearly not the problem; the politicians are the problem. And the problem with them is that they tricked the IDF into pulling the politicians’ chestnuts out of the fire that they first inflamed, and then would not douse.
The IDF was tasked with meeting annual quotas of ultra-Orthodox conscription, in accordance with the deals crafted in the Knesset following the High Court of Justice’s rulings in 2005 and 2012 that deferring ultra-Orthodox men’s conscription violated the principle of equality before the law.
While failing to produce a legislative formula that would fix this problem once and for all, the politicians modified the Conscription Law by creating annual draft quotas, the ones whose monitoring by the IDF has now been proven flawed.
This law’s repeated revisions in the face of successive court appeals have already generated multiple political crises, as the politicians struggled to produce formulas that would gradually increase the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts, and set budgetary sanctions should those quotas not be met.
That is what caused the Knesset’s disbandment in 2012, and that is what caused the Knesset’s disbandment last spring, less than two months after its election.
The problem, then, lies in the basic relationship between Israel’s majority and its ultra-Orthodox minority. And this relationship, in turn, is shaped by what happened 42 years ago – namely, the Likud’s harnessing of ultra-Orthodoxy as a strategic partner.
ULTRA-ORTHODOXY was on the political margins until 1977, and it made the most of the pivotal position it now enjoyed. What began with a sweeping flight from military service soon proceeded to budgeting of hundreds of yeshivot, subsidized mortgages, discounted property taxes, exponentially multiplied child allotments, a special yeshiva-boy category in the National Insurance Institute, and state-backed construction of ultra-Orthodox ghettos.
This financial abuse was then coupled with the moral atrocity of weighing in on semi-Jewish immigrants’ conversions and marriages.
It would all have been avoided had the Likud not defined ultra-Orthodoxy as its strategic partner. If not for that, ultra-Orthodox conscription quotas would not have been born, counting ultra-Orthodox conscripts would not have been necessary, and there would be no scoops about those numbers’ recipes and cooks.
The Likud’s strategic alliance with ultra-Orthodoxy might have been excusable had it been backed by most Israelis, but it isn’t, and it never was. Right-wing voters resent this betrothal no less than centrists and leftists.
That, even more than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s legal entanglement, is why the Jewish state needs the Right-Left coalition that can return ultra-Orthodoxy to the political margins where it belongs.
The alliance that Netanyahu cultivated as his strategic asset is for the rest of us a strategic liability, making a river of hard feelings, tainted money and bad blood run between Jew and Jew; a scourge that has become a permanent and festering fixture of our life, and in this regard is even worse than the plague David’s census caused, for that one lasted only “from the morning until set time,” whereas ours is now in its 43rd year, and going strong.
The writer’s column enters this weekend its 25th year.