Haredi Enlistment in the IDF

The enlistment, or rather the supposed non-enlistment, of Haredi men into the IDF has become an issue again, by the recent decision of Israel’s Supreme Court and by statements by various political leaders in Israel. Most distressing are very harsh attacks on the entire Haredi community (“parasites”, “leeches”, “draft dodgers”) that appear in media and news sites. Attacks like these against an entire group are painful in themselves, but even more so when the charges are false. The problem seems to be a large gap between the general enlistment rate and the Haredi enlistment rate. Some people feel that the general rate is close to 100%, whereas the Haredi rate is 0%. What is the truth?

The general enlistment rate is far below 100%, in fact below 50%, on the order of 45% today. This is not an aberration, but rather the result of a long-term trend. For at least the past decade the rate has been declining. Why? Decreased motivation to serve? No. Increased political objection to specific types and places of service? No. The fact is that we have less need today for large numbers of soldiers. Increasing technology, in the form of drones, robotics, and artificial intelligence, have increased immeasurably the firepower of field units and reduced the overall need for combat soldiers. Computerization has also reduced the need for supporting units. These trends are going to continue, and overall enlistment will be headed towards the range of about 30-35%. It will take some time, but that is what will happen.

Conversely, Haredi enlistement, which was indeed close to zero ten years ago, is now at about 25% of the current 18-year old age cohort, although some reports suggest as high as 30% including national service. This, too, is not an aberration. While the numbers of non-Haredi soldiers have declined, over the past few years the number of Haredi soldiers have been increasing by about 15-20% every year. Charges that the Haredi are not serving are simply wrong.

In fact, given current trends, it very likely that both the general and Haredi enlistment rates will converge on about 35% by the year 2025. Provided, of course, that we do not have additional court decisions and political statements that upset everyone. What we need is patience, and the non-involvement of the government. The “problem” is artificial, and will in any case solve itself within a few years.

“But”, I have heard it said, “Haredi enlistment is not meaningful because it is not to combat units. The Haredi do not put at jeopardy their life and limb.” Is this a true charge?

First, many of the Haredi serve in specific combat units, such as the Nahal unit known as the Netzah Yehuda battalion. In fact, the Israeli city with highest enlistment to combat units is the Haredi town Elad.

Second, one common measure applied to armies is the “tooth-to-tail ratio” (T3R), which compares combat soldiers (infantry, armor, reconnaissance, and combat aviation) to combat support and general duty soldiers. A study by McKinsey & Company, entitled “Lessons from around the World: Benchmarking Performance in Defense”, compared twenty-nine of the largest and most active armies in service around the world, including armies from North and South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. For these armies, the average ratio of combat soldiers to all service members is 26%. Israel’s ratio of 38% is the fourth highest in world, suggesting, if any of us need proof, that the IDF is extremely oriented to combat. The ratio itself is neither good nor bad. An army must have all three kinds of soldiers – combat, combat support, and general duty. However, if Israel has any problem at all in this regard, the problem is almost certainly not a shortage of combat soldiers. In these circumstances, does it make sense that more soldiers must be poured into combat positions, not for purposes of defense but in order to equalize enlistment ratios?

Third, if any specific soldier, Haredi, national religious, or secular, does not wish to serve in combat, for any reason whatsoever, is the proper response to say, “He must serve”? Combat units rely on the motivations of their members. In battle, each soldier must rely, for his life, on the other soldiers in his unit. Do we now say that in order to spread the risk of death or injury, we will force people of all political and religious orientations to serve in combat, even though they do not wish to do so? Is that sensible?

Finally, some people (certainly not all) in secular and relatively wealthy areas of Tel Aviv are now avoiding combat. These people prefer to serve Unit 8200 and other intelligence positions. Have they suddenly become cowards? Should we perhaps force these people to go back into combat positions in order to equalize the burden, to make sure that they, too, are exposed to death or injury?

I am not Haredi. I am national religious. I served in the IDF. I have given a daughter to the IDF, who served as a weapons trainer. I have given three sons to the IDF, all of whom served in front-line infantry units during the Gaza Wars. Although I am not Haredi, I am very tired of hearing slanderous and false accusations against the Haredi community. I oppose such accusations, just as I would oppose false accusations if made against the national religious, secular leftists, or any other group. In Israel, we all do what we can, and it is the combination of different contributions that has made our country so successful over the past 70 years. As for the supposed gap in general and Haredi enlistment rates, this is a very minor problem today, and it will solve itself completely, of its own accord, within just a few years, if the courts and politicians will leave matters alone. Sometimes the best policy is to do nothing, and that is what the government should do here.

About the Author
US patent lawyer and Israeli attorney, specializing in information & communication technologies (ICT) as applied to both military and civilian affairs. With the assistance of Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center, authored a book on the laws of war (also called “international humanitarian law”) entitled A Table Against Mine Enemies: Israel on the Lawfare Front (Gefen Publishing, Jerusalem, 2017). Aliyah in 1988. BA Harvard College, MBA Northwestern, JD University of Chicago.