Yeshivahs will not be solving the IDF’s personnel shortage crisis anytime soon

There is uncertainty over the IDF’s future missions – and the personnel shortage is also an intensely political issue


Defence Minister Yoav Gallant (Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

July 03, 2024 10:26

“For the past nine months I haven’t had any plans and I don’t have plans for the next nine months,” a reservist serving in an elite combat unit told me last week.

“But I know that I’m not entirely typical in this. Back in civilian life I have a government job, so my employers can’t pressure me to come back and our unit has enough fighters so we can work out a rotation allowing those who need to spend some time with their families to go home when necessary.

“The situation for students who have lost an entire academic year or small business-owners and those working in the private sector is dire – especially in the regular reserve battalions that have been called up for a second time and are lacking men.”

The IDF is facing a major shortfall in the levels of personnel it needs to continue fighting the war in Gaza to cope with a possible escalation with Hezbollah on the northern border and to police a simmering West Bank, which is always on the brink of another intifada. It’s not just a military problem. In a country that relies both on conscripts and a large reserve force, it’s a social and national problem, with social workers reporting a massive rise in problems faced by families, mainly mothers with young children, due to the prolonged absence of reservists.

Some senior officers are trying to ignore the problem. “Just look at the new battalions we’ve formed in the past few months with older reservists who left service but are now volunteering to come back,” said one colonel. But others are less sanguine. “We’re relying on the fighting in Gaza to scale down in next few weeks so we can focus on Lebanon,” said a general said. “But what if we need to send more brigades back into Gaza, as we did last week in Shujaiye, because Hamas re-establishes its presence? And what if things boil over in the West Bank as we’re already seeing happen in the Jenin area?”

Besides the uncertainty over the IDF’s future missions, the personnel shortage is also an intensely political issue. The defence ministry has been trying for months now to pass laws extending the service periods of both conscripts and reservists, but the coalition is reluctant to get behind these laws while it is still struggling to solve the issue of the Charedi yeshivah students. Simultaneously passing two laws, one which will effectively exempt most of the young strictly Orthodox men and another which will require non-Charedi men to spend much more time in uniform is too much, even for this government.

On Sunday, defence minister Yoav Gallant met the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defence committee and told them the IDF urgently needs 10,000 more soldiers than the current intake. Since you can’t import soldiers from abroad, he said the only option is to lengthen the conscription period for men from 30 to 36 months and the age of reservists from 40 to 41 (in the case of officers from 45 to 46). Either that or draft thousands of yeshivah students.

The MKs tried to hide their ironic smiles. The committee is now in charge of preparing the law regulating the exemption of yeshiva students for its future readings but the consensus in the committee is that the law is dead in the water. There is no formula to satisfy the demands of the Charedi parties who hold the government’s fate in their hands, while adhering to the equality standards set out by the High Court in yet another ruling last week – let alone the broad opposition of ordinary Israelis, from right and left, to the exemption continuing.

At a violent demonstration on Sunday of thousands of members of the radical Eda Haredit community in Jerusalem, stones and rubbish-bins were thrown and slogans of “We won’t join an enemy army” were cried. One police officer observed wryly that “they certainly know how to fight”. But the yeshivot won’t be solving the IDF’s personnel shortage anytime soon.

No chiefs

In a year in which so many unbelievably awful episodes have occurred in Israel, there is little that can still surprise us, but these are words I really never imagined myself writing: as of Tuesday, Israel has no chief rabbi. That’s right, neither an Ashkenazi nor a Mizrahi one.

How has this come to pass?

I won’t bore you with all the details of why the elections for the new chief rabbis have been postponed for a year, the infighting within Shas over whether the party’s candidate would be the brother of the current chief rabbi or the brother of the party leader, or the skulduggery in the religious Zionist camp that led to the ditching of their agreed candidate because he was seen as too liberal. Then there were the legal challenges to the composition of the 150 member selectorate over the outgoing chief rabbi’s prerogative to appoint some of the members while their siblings are in the running, and the lack of female members.

The bottom line is that a government where the religious and strictly Orthodox parties have reached the peak of their political power is incapable of electing chief rabbis. So for the first time since the Chief Rabbinate was founded in 1921, the Promised Land is without a spiritual shepherd.

It’s yet another example of how the most right-wing and religious government in Israel’s history is also the most dysfunctional. There isn’t a permanent chief justice of the Supreme Court (and two seats on the court are still vacant). It took the government over eight months to appoint officials to lead task-forces for taking care of the civilians uprooted by the October 7 attack and those forced to evacuate their homes on the northern border.

Does Israel even need chief rabbis? Outgoing Ashkenazi chief rabbi David Lau said in a farewell interview that he didn’t think it needed two of them (an easy thing to say when he was leaving the job) and in the absence of new ones, the only official role of the rabbis – serving as president of the High Rabbinical Court – will be filled by the most veteran dayan.

It’s hard to remember any noteworthy initiative of either chief rabbi during their 11-year tenures. Rabbi Lau was unobtrusive, happy to turn up and deliver an inoffensive homily whenever required. His Mizrahi counterpart, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, will be remembered mainly for causing offence with his periodic scandalous statements regarding minorities and secular Israelis. Back in 2018, he even provoked a condemnation from British Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis for using racist terms to describe black people.

More recently, he caused a stir when he proclaimed that if yeshivah students were forced to enlist in the IDF, “we will all leave the country”. He is widely expected to become the new spiritual leader of Shas, the party his father, Rabbi Ovadya Yosef, once led, so we can expect more of that to come.

The problem with the post of chief rabbi is that religious Israelis already have a rabbi they have chosen and secular Israelis have no need for one. In the past, chief rabbis had the stature to make landmark halachic rulings, such as when Rabbi Yosef senior recognised that the Beita Yisrael community in Ethiopia were indeed Jews. But it was their personal record and public following that awarded them the stature, not the title.

Perhaps Israel’s most incompetent government has just inadvertantly saved the taxpayer from having to fund two superfluous positions.

July 03, 2024 10:26

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