Since its inception, the State of Israel has based its military on a paradigm of
a “people’s army,” involving universal conscription and reserve duty. This is
not just a lottery that everyone is subject to, as the United States had for
many years; it’s a system where every person is expected to actually
This model has a variety of practical and ideological
Practically, it was considered a way to field a large
fighting force at low monetary cost and to ensure a high quality of recruits
(since it is often assumed that the type of person who voluntarily enlists will
be on average of lower ability than the population as a
Ideologically, the IDF was envisioned as a melting pot that would
take people from widely varying backgrounds – including birthplace and social
class – and create from them a new, uniquely Israeli identity that would serve
as a source of national solidarity.
A new position paper by Boaz Arad for
the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies examines this paradigm and in light
of its findings calls for the end of universal conscription and a move to a
volunteer, professional army. The institute promotes a freemarket ideology that
clearly shows the influence of the late American economist and free-market
crusader Milton Friedman. Given that Friedman was a main driving force behind
the move to a volunteer army in the US, it is hardly surprising that the
institute is taking a stand on this issue.
The study is narrowly focused
on the practical aspect of universal conscription.
Against the benefits
of universal conscription must be weighed its downside. While the system may
seem inexpensive, this is really just a case of the true expense being put off
the balance sheet. The true cost of a soldier is not how much you actually pay
him but rather how much you would have to pay him to convince him to enlist.
Soldiers work virtually for free because they have no choice.
years of service obviously come at huge personal cost.
model also involves costs to the army. Just as many soldiers would rather not
serve, the IDF would rather not employ many conscripts. Imagine running a
business where you had to hire any person who applied. The army has a job to do,
and like any other institution, it would like to be able to choose its employees
according to its genuine manpower needs.
Arad’s analysis goes a long way
toward adequately quantifying this issue. One thing he points out convincingly
is that whatever its merits, the idea of universal service is far from being the
reality. Many young people are exempt due to ethnic origin or religious
practice. Many others are rejected by the IDF as being unsuitable. Of those who
are drafted, 18 percent don’t complete their service.
Of those who do
finish their service, many are in make-work jobs, while many others are doing
real jobs but jobs that could be done by civilians. Many have their service
shortened by participation in special programs such as hesder.
writes: “In contrast to the ethos of a ‘people’s army,’ in practice, less than a
third of the men in each draft cohort bear the full burden of obligatory
service, and that is even without taking into account the fact that only a
minority of the conscripts are occupied in the core functions of the fighting
He claims that moving to a professional army model would lead to
an army that is more effective, less expensive and less intrusive of personal
liberty. (It may be relevant that Arad is a prominent exponent of Objectivism,
one of the more farreaching strains of libertarianism.) Arad’s findings are
certainly an important contribution to the public discussion on the conscription
But the professional, quantitative considerations are only one
aspect – and not necessarily the most important one. I would like to add two
additional dimensions of the issue, each one with its own facets favoring and
opposing universal conscription.
First, the social aspect: On the plus
side, the idea of the IDF serving as a melting pot forging a definable Israeli
identity and contributing to national solidarity is more than a myth. There can
be no question that the IDF is a place where most young people are thrown
together with others from varied backgrounds and learn to get along and identify
with each other.
On the minus side: that haredim, Muslim Arabs and
religious girls are not drafted may imply that this melting pot is
counterproductive; it does break down some barriers between Israelis but at the
expense of creating new ones. The result is that very large swathes of the
Israeli public are not fully considered “Israeli,” don’t fully view themselves
as “Israeli” and are excluded in large measure from national
Another problem: To the extent that the national identity is
forged in the army, it is likely to be bound up to some extent with militarism,
and this could have disturbing cultural repercussions, especially for a Jewish
Another important issue is public military policy. On the plus
side, having a “civilian” army means that any military action must be viewed as
legitimate in the eyes of Israeli society as a whole. Otherwise there is public
opposition and individual resistance including draft dodging, lack of
motivation, leaking of documents, etc. This serves as a check on military
adventurism, though it could also deter actions that the leadership views as
On the other hand, having a civilian army means that the army
is guaranteed a large, low-cost fighting force. The civilian and military
authorities who are weighing military action don’t have to add up the dollars
and cents of fighting to the same extent they would have to under a volunteer
force. This gives more freedom to act when the need is felt, but it could also
lead to excessive use of force.
Military leaders might even have an
incentive to use their army once in a while to prove that they really need it.
So perhaps this, too, could encourage adventurism.
will be dominant? Naturally, these are considerations that apply to any army
anywhere and not specifically to Israel.
I certainly do not have the
answers to these questions, but I am convinced that they are at least as
important as the efficiency and effectiveness issues examined by
Arad.email@example.com Asher Meir is research director at the
Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem
College of Technology (Machon Lev).