The IDF Challenge: Beyond the Battlefield

While the war in Gaza continues, external threats are not the only military front the IDF has to endure, as it also faces the question of drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into military service as one of the most pivotal challenges facing Israel’s future. We find ourselves at a historic juncture where several factors converge: the burgeoning demographic weight of the ultra-orthodox community; the expiration of the law exempting them from conscription, which is currently scrutinized at the High Court of Justice; the governing coalition’s reliance on ultra-Orthodox parties; and the stark realization from recent conflicts of the army’s urgent need for more troops.

In a country where military service is a rite of passage for many, one could have expected that following the October 7th massacre, the news of massive recruitment of ultra-Orthodox citizens would signal a significant social shift in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox have finally shown up at the recruitment facility, and have grown in their numbers as the war continued. The reactions, naturally, were divided—some liberals rejoiced, while some religious figures were enraged. However, a closer look reveals the truth: the involvement of ultra-Orthodox men with the military was still superficial, presenting a mere semblance of meaningful service, and most of all—standing in stark contrast to the sacrifices made by their fellow citizens. Since the war began, the IDF registered 1,100 new ultra-Orthodox men—but the Defense Ministry has noted that the number of recruits remains the same. It turns out the numbers have been fudged: 70% of the recruits defined by the IDF as ultra-Orthodox, are in fact, ex-ultra-Orthodox, and are not currently living in accordance with the lifestyle of their society.

As the IDF claims that the operational necessities are at a peak, a new service model has been suggested. Infuriatingly, this model extends the regular service period and increases the number of reservists at any given time, which would be insanely expensive for the taxpayers. The cost of the extension of the regular service period is estimated to be around 41 billion NIS Moreover, it turns out that with the military’s need to increase the amount of soldiers in its ranks by extending the period of regular service, a mass recruitment of young ultra-Orthodox men would be much more cost-efficient. The reason is that there will be more regular service soldiers in the military ranks, which would lead to a decrease in the number of days of service that is necessary from reservists by approximately 86%.

My voice in this discussion is shaped by personal encounters: One of them is a journey of a close friend, an exceptional ultra-Orthodox who embraced the rigor of becoming a paratrooper at the age of twenty-seven, contrasting sharply to the military route of the “Shlav Bet” program. A reminder—“Shlav Bet” is designed to offer a shortened army service for older individuals, potentially lasting a few dozen days, and is influenced by various factors including physical condition and family status. It provides a framework for individuals who might not otherwise serve due to age, personal circumstances, or late immigration to Israel—but apparently it has become a common excuse for military service of a growing number of ultra-Orthodox men.

The same ultra-Orthodox friend completed full regular combat military service, after which he continued for another three years of reserve service—including four months of continuous combat in Gaza, which began on October 8th. Some time ago, he happened to meet a fellow ultra-Orthodox soldier. The latter enthusiastically shared that he was finally enlisted in the army, completing his services with two weeks of basic, insubstantial training, including two days in the shooting range, after which he joined the reserve service. He also told of an offer he has to contemplate—to embark on a shortened officers’ course. It goes without saying that the army regards both soldiers as equal reserve soldiers—granting them with the same privileges and benefits, not acknowledging the drastic difference between the two in qualification, training and experience.

Stories like this symbolize a wider issue, as such inconsistency cannot stand. We cannot prioritize the ultra-Orthodox community over the rest of the population, whether by granting excessive privileges to ultra-Orthodox men who serve in the military or by failing to enforce military service for those who refuse to bear the burden. Obviously, some would oppose reducing the privileges that ultra-orthodox soldiers can gain from their current service scheme. They argue that it would crack the national unity display we all cherish since the beginning of the war, and that it might further decrease the incentives for young ultra-Orthodox men to join the army—which even now, their number is close to zero.

The government has no discretion in the matter. Since there is currently no legal basis for the it to refrain from recruiting ultra-Orthodox men, it must do so immediately. If it fails to act, the High Court of Justice must compel it to do so. Ultra-Orthodox service cannot be only a symbolic issue in wartime. The need for every segment of the Israeli society to contribute meaningfully to the national security has never been more pressing, and now it is time to put our money where our mouth is. This is the order of the hour.

About the Author
Noya Shelkovitz holds a bachelor's degree in law and is currently pursuing her master's in government, diplomacy and strategy at Reichman University, and a fellow at the Argov Fellows Program in Leadership and Diplomacy.
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