TEL AVIV – Thousands of yeshiva (Jewish seminary) students have had their draft exemptions revoked after IDF investigators discovered that they had been partying and engaged in other activities usually associated with secular lifestyles.
Since August 2015, the IDF has been heavily enforcing the Israeli Defense Service Law, which sought to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the army. The army provides exemptions to the ultra-Orthodox sector for men aged 17-24 who are studying Torah for 45 hours a week.
However, a senior official in the IDF’s Manpower Directorate said that some 4,000 yeshiva students were caught reveling at nightclubs or on mixed beaches, which flies in the face of a religiously observant lifestyle. Falsely declaring oneself a yeshiva student is a criminal offense.
The IDF hired private investigators who used several methods to catch the draft-dodgers, including scouring social media posts. Thousands of photos on Facebook were unearthed featuring the purported yeshiva students partying over the weekend or on the beach with immodestly clothed women.
“Many in the Haredi sector have a Facebook page,” the military official said.
As soon as we realize that the young man does not meet the conditions for exemption, we revoke it after summoning him for a hearing in which we present him with the evidence and allow him to appeal the decision. Going abroad or working instead of studying at the yeshiva are also considered violations of the requirements. We receive the information from different sources. The only thing that has changed is our ability to enforce using technological measures, while also sharing information with the Education Ministry. This is how we “reach” people.
He went on to say that “We give the time to study to whoever needs it. We’ve discovered a lot are registered at a yeshiva, but don’t actually attend. We’ve always enforced – what’s new today is the use of social media in ultra-Orthodox society. We can easily reach them on Facebook and can do a lot of detective work using a smartphone.”
The men were registered at over 1,000 Talmudical institutions all over the country. Those yeshivot stand to risk losing their status if they are found to be lying about enrollment.
“Anyone whose exemption was revoked and fails to enlist on the day he was assigned is arrested by the CID [the IDF’s Criminal Investigation Division] and brought to the induction center – just like anyone else,” the official said.
He added that many of the men have now been drafted, with some having begun their service.
The official was confident that the enforcement would be in the best interests of the army and of the men themselves, saying enlisting the men “will help ultra-Orthodox youth to integrate better into the general society and the job market.”
Nevertheless, hundreds have appealed the decision and a handful have been arrested by the CID for refusing to enlist, prompting protests outside military courts.
Menachem Shtrauber, a lawyer representing a draft-dodger, said that his client was denied a proper hearing. He added that his client was only briefly engaged in a “secular lifestyle” due to a difficult period and has since “returned to the path of the straight and narrow.” This was something that was, in Shtrauber’s words, “not unusual in the intensive religious life that focus on a constant struggle against desires and urges, which in its very nature also includes failures. In the yeshiva, such moments are referred to as submission to desires and urges and even dubbed ‘crisis.’ The yeshiva considers this ‘crisis’ as reaching a low point in order to climb back up.”
Shtrauber added that someone “who experiences a ‘crisis’ will get a period of grace, being treated with forgiveness by the heads of the yeshiva who try to support him, including as he struggles to get out of the ‘crisis.’ Indeed, my client has sinned, and recognizes that certain times in his life were not lived based on religious demands or even his expectation of himself. He abandoned the road of sins in light of the religious ruling that only ‘He who confess and forsakes (sins) will find mercy.’ The military is being more strict than the Hazal (the sages of the Mishna and the Talmud), who said ‘Even though he has sinned, he is still a Jew.'”