Last week, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman convened members of his Yisrael Beytenu Party to discuss the decline in motivation of Israeli youth to enlist in IDF combat units.
Liberman based his claim, which is widely accepted as correct, on data published by the IDF following each enlistment cycle. It’s important to note here, however, that there has not been a fall in the number of soldiers recruited to combat units, but only a reduction in the number of boys and girls who have shown high motivation to serve in these units.
Overall, the IDF has suffered, however, in recent years from a drop in enlistment numbers.
This is not the first time these statistics are being cited. They point to a clear trend of what’s going on in the mindset of Israeli youth.
In 2016, following the November enlistment cycle, the IDF published some quite troubling statistics. In 2004, for example, more than 77% of Jewish boys enlisted in the IDF, whereas in 2016, only 72% of them entered the army. In other words, less than three-fourth of Jewish males are currently serving in the military.
Half of the boys who choose not to serve in the military are conscientious objectors who cite religious and philosophical reasons, while the other half cites health issues. In addition, over the last two years, there has been a systematic decrease in the number of recruits who express high motivation to serve in combat units. In 2010, over 80% of new recruits showed motivation to serve in combat units, whereas by the end of 2013, this rate had dropped to 70.3%.
The rate rose to 72% in 2015, apparently in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, but then fell to 69.8% by 2016. This year the number dropped to 67%. If we take into consideration both the falling percentage of youth joining combat units, combined with the overall fall in the number of men enlisting, we can see that there’s a very clear trend that needs to be addressed by Israel’s political echelon.
Thankfully, the situation in still far from dire and there are still enough recruits to fill the ranks of combat units, but there is a great gap between the needs of the military and the willingness of Israeli youth. There are a number of reasons for this drop.
The first is there’s been a blurring of the ethos surrounding security since the state was created. Today’s youth have grown under much more pampered conditions, without an existential security threat, and without the sense of being pioneers who are struggling for independence and who feel connected with the world from an early age.
For this reason, they view military service as a necessary stage they are obligated to complete as Israeli citizens, but they are mostly just happy to get through it and continue on with their lives. They want to take a long trip overseas, engage in academic studies in Israel or abroad, build a career and become financially stable.
The second reason is that Israeli youth are looking at Israel’s current leaders, many of whom had previously held senior positions in the IDF, and what they see is pervasive governmental corruption and politicization throughout, including in the defense establishment.
They feel great contempt for these shameful former IDF commanders who now have leadership positions in the IDF, Shin Bet and Israel Police. They understand that there is no longer any prestige and honor in these positions.
The third reason is that the military, civilian and technological sectors have undergone major changes in recent years. The importance of ground combat, armored and infantry units is decreasing, whereas cyber and electronic warfare and technological systems are gaining importance. At the same time, tens of thousands of private hi-tech companies have opened up that offer large salaries and huge potential, which the IDF simply cannot compete with.
The fourth reason is that enlisted soldiers look around at other Israelis who’ve chosen not to perform military service for reasons of religion or conscience, and they feel like friarim (suckers). While tens of thousands of Haredi yeshiva students are exempt from military service and receive government handouts that sometimes are even higher than a soldier’s monthly salary, soldiers are carrying out difficult, dangerous military service that is far from being financially rewarding.
Soldiers read the newspapers and watch the news. They see that the government rewards draft evaders and that politicians are mostly concerned with their own political survival.
The state is not doing anything to change this situation. It has not drafted any new policies and, not for the first time, has left the IDF to deal with this disturbing phenomenon on its own. Therefore, the IDF and its leaders must develop creative ways to reward future soldiers and motivate them to enlist in combat units.
This is entirely possible, but the IDF must enlist the help of the political echelon. The IDF must drastically increase salaries for combat soldiers and combat soldiers must also receive training and be given practical tools that will help in their future as well. Their quality of life must be improved and they must be offered more benefits.
The US, for example, has a volunteer military, and soldiers enjoy high wages, good conditions and high-quality clothing and equipment. They are also highly looked upon and granted great respect by American society.
Israel must significantly reduce benefits given to Israeli citizens who do not serve in the military or perform national service. It must stop granting them beneficial mortgages or housing benefits. Veterans of combat units must be accepted to universities with more ease, and they must be offered the opportunity to take cyber or technology courses so that they can work in these fields.
The IDF has already offered a number of solutions, such as lowering the medical profile necessary to serve in combat units, reducing the number of months soldiers in combat duty are required to serve, integrating female soldiers into combat units, and offering monetary incentives – but this is not enough.
A similar process is unfortunately taking place on a political level, too. Tens of thousands of IDF graduates leave Israel after completing their military service. Some go on trips, others go overseas for studies or to work, and unfortunately, many Israelis end up settling in their new communities across the sea.
The state must make it more attractive for today’s youth to stay in Israel by lowering the cost of living, offering more opportunities for studying and employment, and making it easier to buy a car and an apartment – the sooner the better.
The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security agency).
Translated by Hannah Hochner.