idf soldier 88 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It was supposed to be like numerous drafts before it. Thousands of teenagers, fresh out of high school and accompanied by their parents, showed up this week at the IDF's Tel Hashomer Recruitment Center (Bakum) and received their kitbags, uniforms and boots and boarded buses taking them off to the next three years of their military life.
When Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi visited the center on Monday to speak with the new recruits, he was greeted by a family pounding away on drums in his honor and yelling out cheers for the relatively new military chief.
Since the disengagement from the Gaza Strip two years ago, most drafts have been studied by the IDF Human Resources Department to see if the unilateral withdrawal had a negative impact. After the Second Lebanon War, the IDF conducted similar studies to understand its impact on the draft. These were also the standard questions asked by military reporters when given the usually banal briefings about the March, August and November drafts.
This year, however, Col. Amir Rogobeski, commander of Meitav - the IDF Draft Management and Recruitment Unit - dropped a bombshell and revealed statistics showing another rise in the number of teenagers dodging military service, with the total reaching 25 percent of youth scheduled to be conscripted this summer.
While non-service in the IDF is not novel, the rates have been steadily increasing for over the past 20 years. In 1980, 12.1% avoided the draft, 16.6% in 1990 and 23.9% in 2002.
Rogobeski's revelation changed the entire mood at Bakum this week. The daily morning talk-radio shows interviewed the new recruits alongside their draft-dodging counterparts, and parents quickly set up an organization to combat the phenomenon under the slogan: "Our sons will not be suckers."
The public outcry was quick to follow. With 11% of those dodging the draft being haredim, some politicians blamed the Tal Law which allows 18-year-old yeshiva students to postpone their military service every year until the age of 22, when they are allowed to work or study for a year before deciding to return to yeshiva or join the army.
Others blamed the IDF's granting of unwarranted exemptions from military service on the grounds of bogus mental health conditions. Explaining the reasoning behind the decision to grant the exemption at almost every opportunity, one IDF mental health officer said this week that military psychologists were not willing to take chances by enlisting someone who claimed - before his or her draft - to suffer from poor mental health.
"We're concerned about the off chance the draftee is telling the truth," he explained. "If something really does happen, we know that we'll be the ones to take the fall."
To add salt to the wound, Ma'ariv reported on Thursday that four of the participants in this year's popular TV show Kochav Nolad (A Star Is Born) dodged the draft.
A year after the Second Lebanon War and with less than a year left to his service, the rise in draft dodgers is turning into OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern's final moment of truth - will he succeed in curbing the phenomenon or will it continue to grow.
For years, the General Staff was known for denying reports about drops in draft numbers or in motivation to serve in combat units. Stern, however, was quick to join the chorus of criticism and, while accompanying Ashkenazi to Bakum on Monday, called on the Knesset to pass legislation to curb the growing phenomenon.
Throughout his three-year tenure, Stern has rarely shied away from public controversy. Tension with the national-religious sector and particularly the hesder yeshivot has grown tremendously under his term, mostly due to his efforts to integrate hesder students into regular military units.
During the war, Stern infuriated secular Tel Avivians when he told an interviewer that he rarely visited the families of fallen soldiers in Tel Aviv.
Draft dodging is not Stern's only concern. He also is busy trying to prevent the continued "brain drain," the loss of quality manpower that annually leaves the service for the better salaries and work conditions in the private sector.
The two are closely connected and have to do with a feeling in society that military service is no longer as important as it once was. Stern and IDF spokeswoman Brig.-Gen. Miri Regev are considering hiring a number of top public relations firms to formulate a campaign to encourage military service and discourage draft dodging.
Not everyone, however, sees the situation as gravely as Stern. Prof. Stuart Cohen, a researcher at Bar-Ilan University's BESA Center and an expert on IDF manpower policies, raised the possibility in a research paper released this week that Rogobeski's revelation was in fact an attempt by the military to increase its annual budget.
Cohen analyzes the statistics released by the IDF this week and claims that while 25% of youth are not serving, after deducting the haredim and those who live abroad only 5% can be considered real draft dodgers. The haredi non-service, Cohen concedes, is a significant phenomenon but does not indicate a sudden transformation of national attitudes, since they have consistently resisted military service since the state's establishment in 1948.
Instead Cohen claims that what is really needed is for the IDF to "put its own house in order" before trying to make a play for inflated additions to the defense budget.
"Instead of taking the steps urgently required to refashion its force structure and bring it into line with the needs of an increasingly complex battlefield," he writes, "the IDF prefers to cry wolf and give society a bad conscience."
Whether Cohen is right in downplaying the phenomenon or Stern is right in playing it up, there is no question that steps need to be taken in both directions. While the IDF does need additional funds to counter the growing regional threats, it first needs to set in order the way it spends its money.
There is also no question, as Stern said this week, that the Knesset needs to get its hands dirty and begin confronting this thorny issue. A real reassessment of the Tal Law is needed and haredi non-service should no longer be taken for granted. According to statistics released by the IDF this week, more than 50,000 haredim - almost four full military divisions - are currently exempt from military service.