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