Charedi battalion soldiers on while the politicians dither

Strictly Orthodox military service is back on Israel's political agenda


Israeli soldiers of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox battalion "Netzah Yehuda" hold morning prayers as they take part in their annual unit training in the Israeli annexed Golan Heights, near the Syrian border on May 19, 2014. The Netzah Yehuda Battalion is a battalion in the Kfir Brigade of the Israel military which was created to allow religious Israelis to serve in the army in an atmosphere respecting their religious convictions. AFP PHOTO/MENAHEM KAHANA (Photo credit should read MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

April 27, 2023 11:47

Camp Eliad, near the Syrian border on the southern Golan Heights, is immaculate. The Defence Ministry recently spent £4 million renovating the barracks and training facilities.

Usually it is elite infantry battalions responsible for this key sector on the border with Syria which rotate through Eliad. Four months ago, the camp received a unit which had never served in the north of Israel.

The 97th Battalion Netzach Yehuda is the IDF’s first exclusively Charedi unit, and while other smaller projects now exist throughout the Israeli army, it remains the only regular full-sized battalion comprised of strictly-Orthodox soldiers.

As the issue of Charedi military service returns once again to the public agenda, with the government trying to pass, yet again, a law which will regulate the exemption for yeshivah students, the fact that a Charedi unit does exist and is currently guarding Israel on one of its tensest borders is for many justification for increasing the pressure on them to serve.

But it’s nowhere as simple as that.

Forming a Charedi battalion was and remains to this day a controversial project. That is true both in the Charedi community — where the ideal remains lifelong Torah study and the IDF is regarded by many as an alien organisation -— and in the army itself, where many officers still don’t like the existence of a “sectoral” unit where female soldiers are not allowed and the stringent kashrut standards necessitate additional costs.

Until the end of 2022, Netzach Yehuda spent almost its entire history since its formation in 1999 serving in the West Bank.

Largely due to its special logistical requirements, moving it to a different sector was seen as too much of a bother. But the accumulation of incidents caused by friction between the battalion’s soldiers and Palestinian civilians led the IDF General Staff to decide on an eight-month deployment to the north.

IDF officers who support the battalion insist that the unit’s problematic record should be put into context.

Similar incidents have happened to many other units serving in the West Bank. But since Nezach Yehuda has spent a lot more time there over the past two decades, it has been unfairly singled-out, they say.

At the same time, the battalion has carried out its unique mission of connecting the Charedi community to the IDF.

But after 24 years, it’s still difficult for Netzach Yehuda to fill the ranks for each new intake. The defence ministry employs a team who locate and encourage yeshivah dropouts to join up.

Even for those young Charedi men who have stopped studying, serving in the IDF has a stigma they can’t overcome. Of those who do join up, some are no longer in contact with their families. Others have to wear civilian clothes when they’re off-base.

The sociological make-up of the battalion also indicates the problem. Only nine per cent of its soldiers come from the “Lithuanian” Charedi stream, the one which is most affiliated with lifelong Torah scholarship.

The Lithuanians make up at least a third of the Charedi community in Israel and are widely seen as the ideological torchbearers. Their reluctance to join even a military unit specially catering for strictly Orthodox needs emphasises the distance that still exists between them and the IDF.

Over half of the soldiers are Mizrahim, who are a minority in the Charedi world and traditionally more relaxed anyway towards army service.

In the past there was talk of expanding Netzah Yehuda to a full brigade (three battalions), but as the unit nears its 25th anniversary, the IDF would be satisfied to maintain it at current strength.

The IDF is realistic about Charedi potential. On paper, if all Charedi men were to enlist, the annual intake just of male soldiers would automatically grow by well over 10,000.

But the army doesn’t have roles right now for another 10,000 soldiers — certainly not soldiers who lack the basic skills and education which other soldiers received in high school, but which the Charedi didn’t in yeshivah; and soldiers who have no experience of life outside their insular communities.

If a law was to be passed ending the current arrangement exempting yeshivah students from the draft, the army wouldn’t have a way of enforcing it.

Sending the military police in to Bnei Brak and Meah Shearim to try and winkle the students out of the yeshivahs is unthinkable.

But that doesn’t mean the IDF’s generals can just give up on Charedi conscription, at least not in public. The ethos of the “people’s army” is essential to the IDF, so they can continue relying on the cream of Israeli youth.

But that ethos is now under threat.

The government has to pass a new law regulating the exemptions of yeshivah students by the end of next month as the Supreme Court has ruled that the existing arrangement (and the previous law passed in an attempt to solve the legal issue) does not confirm to the basic standard of equality (one community exempt from service while the rest have to serve).

The obstacles to passing the law in the next few weeks seem insurmountable.

The Charedi leadership can’t accept any law that will set enlistment quotas or penalties for not filling the quotas, if this makes it seem that in any way young men cannot choose to study Torah for as long as they desire.

And the Charedi leadership control the government, through United Torah Judaism and Shas. Within those constraints, the new law and arrangements must somehow conform to the court’s equality standard.

For now, the government’s solution is to greatly boost the basic pay of conscripts, especially of those who serve the full mandatory three-year period in combat units.

That way, they hope to convince the court that those who do serve are fully compensated and therefore equal.

But the Supreme Court is not the only court.

There’s the court of public opinion and that’s the one the IDF is currently concerned about. Off the record, the generals will admit that it makes sense to exempt the Charedim, as few of them will join the army anyway in the foreseeable future.

It would be best for Israel if those among them who are not really into lifelong Torah study and remain registered as yeshivah students just so they can hold onto their exemption would go off to work. The IDF also likes the additional funding for soldiers’ pay, of course.

But even if supporting the new law would be the pragmatic thing to do, openly accepting the exemption of Charedim as a fait accompli is something the army chiefs simply can’t do.

“How can I say to mothers and fathers of soldiers that their children should be expected to sacrifice years of their lives and perhaps also their very lives, but that I’m fine with Charedi mothers and fathers not having to lose sleep at night?” says a senior officer.

“It may be the sensible and pragmatic thing to do, but no commander in the IDF can say such a thing.”

April 27, 2023 11:47

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