Am Yisrael Chai
This past weekend, I had a lengthy conversation with a recently discharged Israeli soldier who was staying at my house over Shabbat. He had been a Lone Soldier in a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) unit, and he has a story to tell.
Without going into personal particulars, it goes like this: Kobi (not his real name) is a former Haredi yeshiva student who decided, against the wishes of his parents, to join the IDF. He enlisted in 2018 with the help of an organization called “Oseh Chayil”, and joined the Paratroopers as part of Nahal Haredi, a program designed specially for Haredi soldiers. In addition, he became a Lone Soldier, as his parents were against his enlistment and were not offering any type of support for him if he should choose to join the IDF. But Kobi persevered. He became a paratrooper.
That would be a nice ending to his story, wouldn’t it? But it’s only the beginning.
After intensive training for 10 months, and then another two months on active duty serving on the border with Lebanon, Kobi was summoned to speak to his commander, who told him that he should pack his things; he is leaving the Paratroopers.
This came as a surprise, as Kobi had not had any problems in his unit, nor had he had any obvious conflicts with his commanding officers or fellow soldiers. In fact, he had a very good rapport with his fellow comrades-in-arms. He hadn’t caused any “trouble” or served time in military jail. The reason he was given for his “demotion” was that he wasn’t a good fit. His commander said he did not want him in the Paratroopers. He was also told that the other soldiers in his platoon didn’t like him, and that if he put up a fight about leaving the Paratroopers, he would be given a role as a “Jobnik” (a non-combat day job, considered a demotion). The alternative was just as alarming: Being told that “You’re no longer part of the Paratroopers” is essentially the same thing as saying “You are no longer a combat soldier”. So Kobi was out of the Paratroopers, and out of combat.
Basically, he was sent home and told to find another unit. But home for Kobi was a rented apartment for soldiers that couldn’t go home for whatever reason. So he went back to his apartment, dejected, and pondered what to do next. He was on his own- no familial support, no other connections in the army, no friends in other units or in higher places. He was from an Ultra-Orthodox family and was raised to NOT do military service. He was supposed to be living a life of full-time Torah study. In fact, Kobi hadn’t even received a high school graduation certificate (teudah), let alone taken any Bagruyot examinations. He had been learning only Torah and Talmud for the past 8 years, with no Core subjects at all.
He considered dropping out of the army. He spent the next month making phone calls, going to meetings, and hoping for the best. But Kobi was losing faith quickly. He seemed to be running around in circles, with no one to help him. Here was a formerly Haredi young man who had gone against the expected norms of his community and joined the IDF, to serve his people and his country. And the army didn’t seem to be willing to help him.
Luckily, a kind soul who worked for Oseh Chayil found out about his situation and took him under his wing. He literally used all his “protektzia” to get him interviews and find a unit for him. Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending on how one looks at it), in order for Kobi to stay in service, he had to officially leave Nahal Haredi and join the “regular” system. So he did.
Things seemed to move faster after that. It took another month for Kobi to get settled into a new unit and a new job on a new base. He was unable to remain a combat soldier on account of his demotion, but he did find rewarding work as a “Tomech Lechimah” (Combat Support) and subsequently had a fulfilling military service, completing over three years of service, more than the required 2 years and 8 months.
I need to interject here and say that I have immense respect for the IDF. But of course I don’t profess to know anything about the workings of enlistments and discharges, and how they determine if someone is fit for service or not. I have been told, however, that if a commander or officer tells you that you’re out, you’re out. There is really not much you can do. But that isn’t my point here. I am writing this to draw attention to what is, in my opinion, a potentially serious problem. Actually two problems, which manifested into one big problem in Kobi’s case: Presumably everyone can agree that Haredi enlistment in the IDF is low. There have been bills brought to the Knesset, endless arguments about Haredi conscription (or lack thereof), political campaigns for and against, and general controversy regarding the issue. That being said, Haredim are enlisting each year, and serving with distinction. My question is this: How does the government, and the country, expect to increase the number of Haredi conscripts if this is the treatment they receive? Where is the support for soldiers who are already in the system and are then demoted? From my understanding, about 10-15 out of 20+ soldiers in Kobi’s Haredi unit were kicked out and forced to find other jobs in the army or quit altogether. Is this the support that the Haredi soldiers are getting?
Kobi’s situation was made worse by the fact that he was a Lone Soldier, without the familial support that other soldiers have. Many Haredi soldiers are serving as Lone Soldiers, due to their families’ opposition to their military service. Kobi’s only way to stay in the IDF was to officially leave the Haredi system. Was this the intention of the IDF when they formed the Nahal Haredi?
Luckily for Kobi, things worked out for him. He has finished his active service and is now studying to complete his Bagruyot, under the auspices of the IDF. But this isn’t the case for everyone. On paper it seems that the IDF has a great plan set up for Haredi soldiers. But in practice, it is more complicated and less fair.
This needs to be remedied if the IDF wants to see continued enlistment by Haredim. There needs to be more than just a basic support system for these Haredi soldiers serving in various units. It should be proper, official support from within the IDF, not just an Amuta or other non-profit. Why did it take a full year for the acting commander to decide that these soldiers weren’t fit for their positions? Why wasn’t someone more sensitive or knowledgeable put in the position of Commander for this unit? More than half of Kobi’s unit eventually was forced to leave. Coincidence? Tough luck? What did the army expect these young men to do?
This is unacceptable and does not bode well for the future of Haredi enlistment in the IDF. Something needs to be done to correct this.