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Israel confirms ultra-Orthodox draft figures were inflated

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JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military said Thursday it found “serious, systemic failures” in its own reporting that inflated figures on the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox Jews, a hot-button issue in a country where most Jewish men are subject to mandatory conscription.

The military launched an investigation after an expose by Israel’s public broadcaster Kan in early December found that the military “doubled or even tripled” figures on the number of ultra-Orthodox men drafted for the past several years. The army had previously said that ultra-Orthodox draft figures have surged.

The investigation instead found “serious, systemic failures that also related to professional capabilities as well as command responsibilities,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, told reporters.

He declined to speak about exact numbers, which will be included in a report published later in the day, but said the discrepancies in some years ran into the “hundreds.” The inquiry found that the army failed to meet its recruitment goals from 2014 to 2018.

Israel's politically powerful ultra-Orthodox political parties have used their influence over the decades to protect the draft exemptions, allowing young religious men to instead pursue religious studies in insular seminaries.

The exemptions, coupled with generous welfare subsidies for ultra-Orthodox men, have been a source of resentment among Israel’s Jewish secular majority, who are required to serve. The ultra-Orthodox are also often schooled in separate systems that offer little of the core curriculum, leaving them ill-prepared for the modern workforce and breeding a culture of poverty.

Experts have long warned that the system is weighing down the economy and is unsustainable in the long run, calling on the government to integrate ultra-Orthodox men into the job market. The now-discredited military effort to enlist young ultra-Orthodox men was seen as an important step in this process.

Issues of religion and state were among the main political fault lines in Israel’s two inconclusive elections last year, and promise to be a key issue in the upcoming March 2 elections. The vote will be the country's unprecedented third election in less than a year, and the Yisrael Beitenu party headed by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose platform has focused on what it says is the excessive influence of the ultra-Orthodox, is once again poised to make a strong showing.

Conricus said the errors stemmed from “severe professional negligence” within the military's manpower directorate.

“No direct instructions were given by senior commanders ... to manipulate or corrupt the data in any way or to provide false reports in order to meet recruitment goals," he said. “We did not find political pressure or financial motives.”

Instead, he said personnel in the directorate "gave themselves a very liberal interpretation of the law and of what they could do, which resulted in a conscious, intentional and systematic behavior that went beyond the definitions of the law.”

The inquiry found that the main motivation was to meet quotas. Conricus said the head of the directorate, a two-star general, would be reprimanded, along with a number of other commanding officers.

But the inquiry said the errors also stemmed in part from the lack of a clear, legal definition of who is ultra-Orthodox. Many Israelis are raised ultra-Orthodox but later leave their insular communities, which live according to a strict interpretation of Jewish religious law.

But Conricus said some recruits, including women and newly arrived immigrants, were counted as ultra-Orthodox when they were clearly not part of the community.

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