Revolution in the Israeli army

Increasing numbers of strictly Orthodox young men are enlisting

By Anshel Pfeffer, September 28, 2010

IDF Chief of General Staff Lt-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi is widely credited with putting Israel's military back on an operational footing after the Second Lebanon War. But when he ends his military career in five months' time, he may be remembered for an altogether more profound change in Israeli society.

For the last three years, more and more units have launched training programmes specifically tailored to young Charedi men in their mid-twenties, complete with time off for prayers and study, a separate military environment with only male officers, meals prepared under a stricter kashrut supervision than that of the IDF Rabbinate and a schedule that allows them to spend time at home with their families.

Around 2,000 recruits have already joined the Air Force, Intelligence Corps and Technological and Logistics Directorate, where they serve mainly as computer programmers, IT experts and technicians.

Eleven years ago, the IDF began enlisting young Charedi men into a new exclusively strictly Orthodox infantry unit. At first the programme encountered stiff opposition from many rabbis and had trouble recruiting sufficient soldiers. Today it is a fully-fledged combat battalion and some in the army believe that "Netzach Yehudah" will one day grow into an entire brigade.

However, to secure a ceasefire with the rabbis, the army had to limit its catchment to yeshivah dropouts only, and promise not to entice anyone away from their Torah studies. This forced the army to rethink its Charedi policy.

By 2015, a third of young Charedi men could be enlisted

Lt-Gen Ashkenazi has voiced his concern in different forums over the effect of Israel's changing demographics on the army's recruitment.

"A declining birth-rate, low aliyah and larger number of Charedi and Arab citizens in the next generation will mean we will find it harder to get a sufficient number of recruits," he said in a recent meeting. "I am not so worried for the combat units, as there are high levels of motivation there, but for the technological echelons."

By opening up specialised technical positions to Charedi men, and in the future, some hope also Charedi women, the IDF hopes to tap into a new reservoir of human potential. In addition, it hopes to help the growing strictly Orthodox community solve what is becoming one of its biggest problems: finding gainful employment for thousands of men who have spent over a decade in yeshivah and now have to sustain their families. Most of these men studied only Torah from the age of 14 and the IDF pays for special courses in mathematics and English before they start their professional courses.

They are assured of three years of salaried service and of emerging from the army with skills that will make them easily employable. Some have already opted to stay on in the army as officers.

The army is planning to enlarge its Charedi programmes over the coming years and hopes that by 2015, a third of Charedi men of conscription age, about 4,000 annually, will have enlisted.

There are a number of obstacles. One is budgetary. While most regular soldiers only receive a paltry monthly salary equivalent to about £70, those who are married with children, as are almost all the Charedi recruits, receive full wages. The Treasury has yet agree to cover their salaries and the additional costs of building separate living and training facilities.

Another problem is maintaining a segregated environment with no women. Some female officers have are concerned that as more units absorb teams of Charedi men who are prepared to have only male commanders, their promotion opportunities will become severely limited.

The army has set up a number of committees to try to find ways of dealing with these and other obstacles. Surprisingly, one problem that has yet to come up is objections from senior rabbis.

"We spent a lot of time studying the Charedi community and meeting with rabbis before we began the programme," explained one senior personnel officer in the Intelligence Corps. "We made it clear to them that we were only interested in recruiting men who were leaving yeshivah anyway and when they trusted us on that count, and they realised that we would do everything possible to create a proper environment, they were surprisingly willing to cooperate. I was surprised to find out that many rabbis were not ideologically opposed to the army."

"My Rebbe actually told me I had to join the programme," says one recruit from a Chasidic family. "He said that it would be a sin if I wasted my talents and did not join up."

Last updated: 2:08pm, September 28 2010