Israel confronts flagging interest in military service

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 12:18 AM

TEL HASHOMER, ISRAEL - Since Israel's founding, the military here has served not just as a defender against outside threats, but as the glue that brings together a patchwork nation of immigrants.

Now, the Israel Defense Forces' position as the country's most venerated institution appears to be slipping. While service is compulsory for most young men and women, a growing minority is avoiding conscription, leaving planners to worry the military won't have the troops it says it needs.

The characteristics of those who do serve are changing in striking ways. Officers who are ideologically opposed to relinquishing Israeli control of the West Bank are taking on a more prominent role, potentially complicating any eventual Israeli withdrawal of Jewish settlers from the territory as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.

A recent series of scandals has reignited debate about morals and accountability in the armed forces, and analysts say public trust in the military is declining. Last month, a YouTube video of a dancing Israeli soldier shimmying near a bound and blindfolded Palestinian woman went viral on the Internet, further embarrassing the military.

"The military understands its position has eroded," said Yagil Levy, a professor at Israel's Open University and a leading expert on the military.

The share of military-age Jewish Israelis who don't serve grew from 12.1 percent in 1980 to 26 percent in 2007, according to a study by Haifa University political scientists published in August. The military projects that figure will reach 43 percent by 2020. And the portion of 11th- and 12th-grade males who said they would volunteer if service was not mandatory was only 58 percent in 2007, compared with 94 percent in 1988, the study found.

"Fifteen or 20 years ago, not serving in the army or not doing miluim [reserve duty] was something to be ashamed of and today, I wouldn't say it's the other way around, but definitely people have no problem to declare that they just don't go to the army or don't serve in the reserve duty," said reservist Shahaf Kieselstein, who handles combat unit recruitment. Youth icons who have evaded service in recent years like Leonardo DiCaprio's girlfriend, model Bar Refaeli, give legitimacy to evading service, he said. "It trickles down."

A changing population

The biggest explanation for the declining service rate is the growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who study full-time in yeshivas, or religious schools, and are eligible for exemptions from military service. Others are exempted for health reasons, criminal records or because they live abroad.

Today, the military loses 13 percent of its potential draftees because of ultra-Orthodox exemptions, compared with 4 percent 10 years ago. In 2020, that number is expected to reach 20 percent because of a drastically higher birthrate among the ultra-Orthodox compared with secular Israelis. To help persuade more ultra-Orthodox to volunteer, the Israeli military is expanding its efforts to provide special food, extra time for prayer and other adjustments to make service compatible with their religious practices.

In the past, officers largely came from secular, elite families from the Tel Aviv area or the collective farms known as kibbutzim. But today, increasing numbers are observant Jews who tend to be more politically oriented, more committed to the Zionist cause and more integrated into society than the ultra-Orthodox. An Israeli military magazine, Ma'arachot, reported recently that one-third of those who complete officers' courses come from this group, a roughly tenfold increase over a decade ago.

Kieselstein, a reserve officer from an infantry combat unit who lives in Har Adar, a community midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has been doing reserve duty for 18 years. He's watched the changes among the officers.

"What I do feel is a bad thing is the miluim are not spread equally among the potential society parts that could take on the burden," Kieselstein said. "The reality is I'm almost 40 now. The only reason I keep serving is because I want to. People who don't want to serve, they find a way to get out early. The army hardly tries to fight back. That's a paradox I cannot explain. On the one hand they talk about shortages. But all my friends . . . if they don't want to serve after 30 or 35, they get out of it and the army does nothing about it.''

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