Yes, Charedim do join Is­rael’s army


THE NET­ZAH Ye­huda in­fantry bat­tal­ion is far from a reg­u­lar IDF unit. As well as be­ing strictly Ortho­dox, it also has the high­est pro­por­tion of over­seas sol­diers of any in the Is­raeli army.

With up to 20 per cent of re­cruits born far from Is­rael’s shores, Bat­tal­ion Com­man­der Lt-Col Itzik Guy says that of­fi­cers in some ba­sic train­ing pla­toons is­sue their or­ders in English.

At a bat­tal­ion evening in Jerusalem last week, sol­diers swapped anec­dotes in an­i­mated French, Brook­lyn and West Coast tones. On the mar­gins were Aus­tralian and Bel­gian ac­cents and even the lonely North Lon­don voice.

“We didn’t join the IDF to talk English,” says Yossi Natan­zon, orig­i­nally from Los An­ge­les. “The most im­por­tant thing for us is to blend in and learn He­brew. But when there’s a group of us here to­gether, we nat­u­rally go back to our mother tongue.”

Net­zah Ye­huda, a bat­tal­ion of the Kfir Brigade, was formed in 1999 as part of a so­cial ex­per­i­ment by the Defence Min­istry aimed at re­cruit­ing young strictly Ortho­dox men.

The ra­tions are glatt kosher, the train­ing is in iso­lated bases where fe­male sol­diers are banned, and it in­cludes daily To­rah study and weekly vis­its by rab­bis.

Op­po­si­tion to the unit’s ex­is­tence was stiff, both from se­nior of­fi­cers, scep­ti­cal of its com­bat-ef­fec­tive­ness, and from the strictly Ortho­dox lead­er­ship fac­ing a threat to their ef­forts to keep the Charedi com­mu­nity iso­lated. De­spite an en­er­getic re­cruit­ment cam­paign, the so­cial pres­sure within the com­mu­nity was such that only a few dozen young men joined up in each re­cruit­ment cy­cle. The so­lu­tion came from an un­ex­pected di­rec­tion: an in­flux of for­eign re­cruits.

Most learnt of the unit by word of mouth. “I came on aliya on my own,” re­called Ariel Ben-David, from a Lubav­itch fam­ily in Toulouse, “and I wanted to go to Golani. But a friend of mine told me about Net­zah Ye­huda, that it was more like a fam­ily, and there were fewer fights and ten­sions. So I de­cided to try it. Be­ing on my own in Is­rael, it turned out to be the best thing.”

English- and French-speak­ing rab­bis now travel each week to the unit’s base in the Jor­dan Val­ley to give To­rah lessons. All the IDF’s aliyah coun­sel­lors are fe­male, so a small group of male coun­sel­lors was trained es­pe­cially.

“To­day, about 15 to 20 per cent of the new re­cruits are for­eign,” said Lt Col Guy. “At least in some of the ba­sic train­ing pla­toons, the of­fi­cers have to give or­ders in English.”

Y i t z hak Kay, f r o m F i nch­ley, North Lon­don, said: “It helped us to learn He­brew much more quickly and it was part of the in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing a part of Net­zah Ye­huda.”

Kfir Brigade com­man­der Colonel Itai Virov added: “The for­eign sol­diers are prob­a­bly the most mo­ti­vated we have. You don’t have to ex­plain to some­one who left his home and came to live or vol­un­teer here what he’s do­ing here and why.”

Train­ing: Troops from the in­fantry bat­tal­ion on ma­noeu­vres

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