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Perhaps as a belated reaction to the Second Lebanon War, the country seems to be going through a reassessment of its success in inculcating patriotism. In response to the slow but continuous rise in the percentage of our youth who do not serve in the military, increasingly urgent calls have come from military leaders to restore the stigma against avoiding service.
In a related development, Meretz MK Avshalom Vilan says the oath that new IDF soldiers take should be modified, both to deal with the problem of soldiers looking to rabbis and not just their officers for guidance, and to remove the "archaic and frightening" reference to sacrificing one's life for the country.
Vilan would add the word "only" to the soldiers' commitment to "obey all the orders and instructions handed down by authorized commanders" to make clear that they must not obey "orders" from rabbis or other authorities. Also, in the phrase, "I swear to devote all my strength and even sacrifice my life for the defense of the homeland and Israel's liberty," the words "sacrifice my life" would be replaced with "give my entire self."
While Vilan's sentiments are understandable, it is not clear that his suggested changes would really unmuddy the waters. "Obey orders" means obeying only the orders of the commanders; adding the word "only" would admit the existence of other "orders," giving them a backhanded form of recognition.
Similarly, while it is surely "archaic" to allude to Joseph Trumpeldor's legendary last words ("Never mind, it is good to die for our country"), the existing oath does not, as Vilan suggests, imply that the goal of the soldier is to die. It does frankly recognize and honor, somewhat jarringly to modern ears trained on euphemisms and political correctness, what soldiers can ultimately be called upon to do.
On the matter of restigmatizing avoidance of service, the Prime Minister's Office is considering drawing up a blacklist of entertainers who avoided military service, which would be provided to local councils sponsoring official celebrations, such as for Israel's 60th Independence Day next year.
Army Radio has already reportedly decided not to offer Aviv Geffen the opportunity to host a radio show because he avoided army service.
The term and concept of blacklisting does have odious overtones, suggesting that, if anything, a "whitelist" should be considered that recognizes entertainers who did serve in the military. But this does not address the question of whether the army and state can, or should, distinguish between those who serve in the IDF and those who do not.
We believe that, on balance, it is important to maintain the societal stigma against avoiding military service. This does not mean, of course, that those who are unable to serve for legitimate reasons should be punished. It does mean that certain forms of official recognition, which are in the category of privileges rather than rights, should be withheld from people who made the choice of handing the rest of society a burden that they, as citizens, were supposed to share.
It should not be forgotten, however, that trying to enforce a norm of service in what we still call a people's army, cannot be accomplished by maintaining stigmas alone. The motivation to serve in combat units does not come from a desire to avoid a stigma, but from a desire to excel, be challenged, to advance in life and, yes, even to defend one's country. These positive motivations must be developed through a life-long process of learning at home, in schools and from wider society.
The stigma against avoiding service cannot exist without pride and motivation to serve. Creating a non-military form of national service, as is also being discussed, is a good idea. This would not only help those who for legitimate reasons are ineligible to be drafted, it also could end the practice of healthy young people avoiding any form of service. This includes the haredi community, for which frameworks within that community, or outside it, can be created that do not violate its practices and mores.
The fact that in Israel, unlike other democracies, there still is a norm of universal service - however frayed around the edges - should itself be considered a precious national asset to be modernized and developed. Conceptions of service can and should change, but the core principle - that all citizens must contribute to defending and advancing their society - should be preserved.