For more than two decades, Netzach Yehuda has been a home and a springboard for thousands of ultra-Orthodox soldiers
‘NOT EVERYONE can sit and learn for eight hours… haredi parents are looking for alternatives for their sons and don’t want them to be poor.’. (photo credit: REVACH HAFAKOT)
Some 20 years after it was founded, the IDF’s ultra-Orthodox Netzach Yehuda has begun a quiet revolution within a community that remains opposed to military service. From a small unit, it has grown into a battalion and has become a launching pad for thousands of haredi men into the workforce.
Reforms passed in the Knesset in 2014 that aimed to gradually increase ultra-Orthodox recruitment have been met with stiff opposition from many in that religious community, which has historically been exempt from military service – and there have been regular demonstrations against the draft
“Social change can’t be forced. It takes time. It’s a process that is taking place even as we speak. The army is a vehicle that allows haredi men to move forward in life,” Rabbi Tzvi Klebanow, president of the Nahal Haredi Organization, which accompanies ultra-Orthodox soldiers throughout their army service, told the Magazine.
KLEBANOW WAS there at the beginning of Netzach Yehuda.
“I saw issues within the community. Youth were falling through the cracks,” he said of the founding of the battalion during an interview at his organization’s headquarters in Jerusalem.
“Our goal was to see that the men have a meaningful and successful service,” he said of the staff of 25 mentors.
“At the start, we had to scrape together 50 to 60 boys twice a year and now recruitment has begun to grow with friends bringing friends,” Klebanow said, adding, “Brothers are now bringing their brothers.”
Soon there will be the second generation of Nahal Haredi. In the coming months the battalion will be led by the first commander who grew up in Nahal Haredi.
According to him, the ultra-Orthodox community has “majorly changed over the past 10 years, with many haredim seeing opportunities.” The switch was enabled, he explained, when the community realized the army needs their young men and that it was a “positive Torah environment, [comforting] the parents who were afraid their sons would become secular.”
While his organization doesn’t encourage recruitment, according to Klebanow, there are 2,200 active haredi soldiers in the Israeli military with 1,200 serving in combat positions. Those who don’t serve in combat roles have also been integrated into the Israel Air Force in positions that pave the way to employment following their service, such as repairing damaged airstrips or driving large trucks.
Of those serving, 30% (around 700) are lone soldiers.
However, he said, “The army doesn’t recognize many of them as lone soldiers because their parents won’t sign on the forms to say they no longer want them.”
Many of the lone soldiers do not have a home to go back to when they are off-base and no family that they can spend Friday-night dinners or holidays with. And that’s why the bulk of the organization’s work is accompanying these lone soldiers from the beginning of their service and even after.
“We are there for them throughout their entire lives,” Klebanow said, including weddings and britot.
“It’s created a revolution in the haredi community,” said Netzach Haredi Organization board member Stephen Rosedale. “In the beginning they [the soldiers] had to hide what they did, now it’s very different.”
“Not everyone can sit and learn for eight hours and they can end up being grabbed by the streets,” Rosedale said. “Haredi parents are looking for alternatives for their sons and don’t want them to be poor. They want them to have jobs and the army is the vehicle for that. It changes their lives.”
‘The army is a vehicle that allows haredi men to move forward in life’ (Credit: Courtesy)
But, he said, “The general public needs to understand the challenges and obstacles that these soldiers face.”
He told the Magazine that it is still a problem to go into haredi communities in Bnei Brak or Mea She’arim in uniform and that girls who have brothers serving have a harder time getting shidduchim.
“The haredi community changes slowly and it is very fearful, but our boys show that you can serve in the army and come out better than before, with more self-confidence and all the while staying religious.”
Rosedale served in Vietnam and was badly injured in a mine explosion. He spent six months in hospital.
“I know what it’s like to have death look over your shoulder, to have friends die, to go into dangerous situations,” he said, explaining that he feels a sense of responsibility for these soldiers.
WHEN IT was established at the end of 1999, Netzach Yehuda began as a small company of 32 troops but is now one of the largest battalions in the IDF, with religious soldiers from a wide range of haredi sects, ranging from ultra-Orthodox Israelis to new immigrants to those who identify with the radical Hilltop Youth settler movement.
It has also lost a number of soldiers in terror attacks and military operations.
And in the past couple of years, the battalion, which operates mainly in the West Bank, has been involved in a number of violent incidents, with soldiers accused of severe abuse – including violent beatings and even electrocuting militants in their custody.
In January, a platoon commander and four combat soldiers from the battalion were arrested by military police for allegedly beating two Palestinians who they had detained as part of the army’s efforts to locate As’am Barghouti, who killed two soldiers from the Netzach Yehuda battalion outside the West Bank outpost of Givat Assaf.
The military is investigating whether the soldiers had been motivated by revenge for their comrades killed in the deadly attack.
Klebanow says that the beating “was a terrible thing… terrible. This is not something that we advocate. This was a despicable thing to do.”
THE HAREDI community has realized that the army is ‘a positive Torah environment, [comforting] the parents who were afraid their sons would become secular.’ (Credit: REVACH HAFAKOT)
But it wasn’t the only time the battalion was mired in controversy.
In mid-December, two soldiers from the Netzach Yehuda battalion attempted to release settlers who had been arrested by Border Police for throwing stones at Palestinian homes. As a result, a fight broke out between the soldiers and Border Police force, leading to their suspension pending a joint investigation of the incident by the IDF and Border Police.
In 2016, a soldier from the battalion was sentenced to nine months in prison and demoted to the rank of private after he was convicted by military court of using a medical device to shock two Palestinian prisoners in the neck. Another soldier filmed on his cellphone the abuse of the prisoner, who was handcuffed and blindfolded.
Around the same time, another soldier was convicted for beating a Palestinian detainee from the West Bank village of Safarin by hitting him on the head as well as kicking him.
VETERANS FROM the battalion are vital to the operation of Klebanow’s organization, the growth of the battalion and helping newly released soldiers transition into the workforce.
Yossi Levy, CEO of the Nahal Haredi Organization, joined the Netzach Yehuda battalion in 2009 against the wishes of his family.
“Most of my family said it was better to die than to serve in the army,” he said. “But after several months, they started to understand it was good. But I probably wouldn’t have served if there wasn’t a haredi track.”
Levy told the Magazine that in the 10 years since he joined there has been significant growth in the number of haredi youth joining the IDF, “but there has not been enough growth. We are the bridge between the army and the haredi community.”
Despite his family being so against him joining the military, he said that his sons will likely follow in his footsteps and serve in the IDF.
“My son is growing up with me in uniform and I believe he will serve in the haredi track, too.”
If he does, he will be the latest in the next generation of haredi youth who will continue the quiet revolution in the closed community, which is slowly opening up to joining the larger Israeli society.
“Once they do the army, they are someone else when their service is done,” Klebanow said. “What they learn is that they want to fight for and serve Israel and be part of the country.”
Now entering its third decade, the Nahal Haredi Organization has become a “vital project that needs to be successful for the State of Israel,” Klebanow said. “The haredi community is growing and is going to be asked to do play a role for the State. Nahal Haredi is essential in that regard.”
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