Israeli Life: Our Children, Our Army
The draft is a rite of passage in the Jewish state, but are more Israelis avoiding their national service?
No Israeli can remain unmoved by the sight of young men and women, some hesitant and shy, others boisterous chevreman, their backpacks slung over their shoulders, waving good-bye to family and friends as they take their first step to serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
In past years, however, this iconic image has been tarnished as media reports focus on those who leave the country rather than enlist. Statistics show that Israel may face serious future declines in the number of conscripts, since the birthrate of groups whose children traditionally serve in the Army is waning.
So what is the exact state of the Israeli draft?
On the surface, Army service seems to be in trouble. Last year’s well-publicized spat between Israeli-born supermodels Bar Refaeli and Esti Ginzburg further highlighted draft dodgers. Ginzburg, currently serving her two-year stint in the military, criticized Refaeli for avoiding national service. In the summer of 2008, the daily Yedioth Aharonoth published an open letter from high school students refusing to enlist “as a protest of the separation, oppression and killing policy held by the State of Israel in the occupied territories.” And a few months ago, National Religious yeshiva students held up signs calling for soldiers to refuse to serve if they are ordered to evacuate Jews from the West Bank.
Nevertheless, the IDF remains one of the most formative forces in the life of most Israelis. Throughout high school, girls and boys prepare for their Army service. It is so integral to society that, for many, it is almost immoral not to serve. Eyal Namer, 25, was given a medical exemption when he turned 17, yet volunteered for a noncombat unit. “I didn’t want to be excluded from an important aspect of Israeli life,” he explains.
Seventeen-year-old Roi Yehoshua from Yeruham will enlist next year; he is preparing by running every day and going on hikes with friends. Having had rheumatic fever as a child, Yehoshua made sure to obtain a clean bill of health from a heart specialist so he could serve in a commando unit. “We know if we don’t defend the country, no one will,” he says. “Of course, it is also a matter of prestige. People think you are special if you are wearing a certain Army beret.”
On the other hand, there are those conscripts who plan to shirk the draft. Yehuda Maron, a teenager from a poor family in the development town of Dimona, feels that the government does not help him or his family. “Why should I serve?” he asks.
“There has always been refusal to serve for reasons of ideology or conscience,” says Elisheva Rosman Stollman, instructor in politics and government at Ashkelon Academic College and Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. “The number has been around 100 a year. Usually, a person who felt that he could not serve because it went against his beliefs was able to make an arrangement to avoid the situation. Religious soldiers who felt that they could not evacuate people from Gush Katif during the disengagement were not put in the first circle to take people out. It is only when recruits or soldiers publicly confront the system and use draft refusal as a means of political protest that they open themselves to recrimination, even prison terms.”
In contrast to recent buzz that motivation has dropped, in 2009, there was a surge of interest in the IDF. “Almost 75 percent of males legally obliged to join the Army enlisted,” notes Lt. Col. Gil Ben Shaul, deputy commander of Army Manpower, which functions as the IDF’s human resources department. “Hundreds showed up at 6:30 A.M. for Commando Preparation Day. There was also a demand for regular infantry units like Golani and Givati.” Military analysts attribute this surge to 2008’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, where the IDF performed competently, in contrast to the blunders of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
“If we look closely,” continues Ben Shaul, “it is clear that, of the 25 percent that do not enlist, few are actual draft dodgers. Thirteen percent are ultra-Orthodox who are exempt from the IDF on the basis that they devote themselves full-time to Torah study; a few percentages are not accepted because of criminal backgrounds and 4 percent have been living outside the country since before the age of 16. And there are 5 percent that are given medical exemptions. That leaves around 1 percent that are draft dodgers, that just disappear.”
However, he admits, within those medical exemptions, emotional illness is harder to judge than physical illness. “Psychological incompatibility,” claims Stuart A. Cohen, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, is a code used by the IDF for those who fake mental illness to avoid service.
Yet, according to Zur Keren, recently retired head of military psychology of IDF ground forces, there is no more attempt to shirk Army duty for psychological reasons today than there was 20 years ago. “There is simply more sensitivity on the part of the IDF to allow exemptions,” he explains.
At the same time, Israel faces demographic problems, particularly given the high birthrate of the ultra-Orthodox. “If this trend continues,” declares Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF chief of general staff, “only a small minority of the population will be recruited 20 years from now.”
“There will not be enough soldiers for the Army to function,” adds Ben Shaul. As a consequence, the IDF is expending a lot of energy to attract haredim. “There are married men in their late twenties who no longer study in yeshiva,” he notes. “And the IDF is training them as computer programmers, mechanics and technicians. The Army gains from their acquired skills and, afterward, they go out to civilian life with a profession.”
Another important resource is women. “Today, 90 percent of jobs in the IDF are open to women,” notes Ben Shaul. “Women are paratrooper instructors, drivers. They serve in the Air Force and the Navy. Unfortunately, only 55 percent of Israeli women are drafted. Forty-five percent generally receive ‘religious exemptions.’
“Of these,” he claims, “a third use the religious exemption clause. They do not enlist, but their lifestyle is not religious. We are trying to investigate these women, pass legislation that will make this illegal.”
The Army has also started actively encouraging conscription in the general population. Soldiers from the Education and Youth Corps go into high schools and bring high-ranking officers to speak about the Army and explain how service will help them later in life.
“Once, a soldier would ask, ‘What can I do for my country?” muses Stollman. “Today, a draftee also asks, ‘How might my Army duty help my future?’ But the idea of contributing to the country still motivates young people. There are simply competing factors as well.”
Once enlisted, there is still the problem of fallout, soldiers who do not complete their service because they are injured or lose motivation. “There are around 17.5 percent who don’t get to the finish line,” she says.
“Over the years, we have become more sensitive to the problems of the soldiers, especially during basic training,” says Keren. “If a commander sees that a soldier is having difficulty, he can recommend an Army psychologist. The commanders are given more tools to know how to talk to their soldiers, be aware of stresses from home, like money problems.”
One reason for fallout is the limited schooling among some draftees. “There is a clear relationship between the level of education and the ability to serve more than one year,” argues a July 2009 article on the Army Manpower News Web site. The IDF does run remedial courses for haredim and minority groups like the Bedouins. In addition, the IDF has expanded a program in which soldiers are supported at university in exchange for additional years in the Army. Called Atidim, the program now extends to those with fewer than 12 years of education, training underprivileged youth in vocations that can be used after the Army while answering its increasing need for high-level manpower.
Israel is slowly becoming an individualist, capitalist country— like every other Western country where the state serves the citizens, not the other way around,” says Keren. “At the same time, the IDF is deeply rooted in Israeli culture and history. The group ethos is very important. In the United States, for example, marines coming home from difficult wartime experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan are regrouped for their second period of service. They have lost comrades and have no one with whom to share that grief. Israelis, on the other hand, remain with their buddies with whom they have been in combat, witnessed death. The individual feels part of a cohesive group.”
Keren feels this stress on cohesiveness reflects that IDF culture is still rooted in traditional Israeli socialist values. “The IDF can do all kinds of things to make soldiers work together, but you have to have a community concept to start with,” he declares.
And, indeed, the IDF has been one of the most important forces unifying this young pluralistic state. It is here that social and religious gaps are often bridged. Today, 30 percent of the National Religious soldiers are officers. A common joke is that the biggest synagogue in the country is at the officers’ training base.
David Stolper, a former officer, says he and his friends went into an elite unit determined to show how well the religious can do in the Army. “Instead,” he relates, “I learned to appreciate Israeli youth from other backgrounds. In our unit, there were men from Gush Dan and development towns, Ethiopians as well as moshavnikim. During the training period, we learned to depend on each other. Later, we executed delicate military operations and I became closer to them than I had been to anyone else in my life. Today, they are my best friends.”