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Israel is not in the throes of a military recruitment crisis. Despite recent reports to the contrary, the statistics simply do not support the contention that young Israeli men are abandoning the IDF in droves. In fact, Israeli enlistment remains at extraordinarily high levels. Why then the hysteria? Because the IDF is cynically seeking to augment its own standing by creating an aura of crisis.
According to figures released last week by the IDF, 25 percent of potential male draftees do not participate in what has been considered the most meaningful manifestation of (Jewish) Israeli citizenship. Furthermore, in terms of overall numbers, the August 2007 cohort was the smallest draft in the past several years. "Motivation to serve," measured by applications for assignment to combat units, has also declined by 1.5 percent over the previous 12 months.
Sounds like a crisis, indeed.
But a closer inspection of the statistics tells a different story. Yes, it is true that rates of non-service in the IDF have been steadily increasing from 12.1 percent in 1980, to 16.6 percent in 1990, and to 23.9 percent in 2002. But most of that rise is due to the explosion in the numbers of ultra-Orthodox males who are granted draft deferments (effectively, draft exemptions) on the grounds that they devote themselves full-time to the study of the Torah. In 1980, haredim comprised 3.7 percent of all potential recruits; today the figure is 11 percent.
Haredi non-enlistment is certainly a significant phenomenon, but it's essentially a red herring, since it clearly does not indicate a sudden transformation of national attitudes toward the ethos of military service. The dramatic rise in the number of exemptions in the ultra-Orthodox world is principally caused by its high birth rates.
SIMILARLY, A considerable proportion of the remaining 14 percent of non-draftees does not fit the depiction of persons experiencing lack of motivation. According to the 2007 figures, of those 14 percent, four percent reside abroad - a proportion that has declined slightly over the past decade. Another three percent are rejected for service because they possess a criminal record - a proportion that has doubled since 1990. Incidences of physical incapacity or premature death account for roughly another 2 percent, a figure which has remained stable over the years.
So, of the 25 percent total we're left with five percent of the non-draftees. This group consists of young men whom the IDF excuses from service for "psychological incompatibility." In fact, the majority probably does not suffer from psychological handicaps likely to be exacerbated by the strain of military life. Instead, it is generally accepted that "incompatibility" is a code used by the IDF to classify what the man-in-the-street calls draft dodgers - youths who fake a mental illness or other impediments in order to shirk service.
BUT THE most striking fact is that the figure is still only five percent. Even if one adds to these numbers some of the 17.5 percent of conscripts who, although drafted, received early discharge, the overall picture stays unaltered. At the end of the day, draft dodging remains a minor phenomenon in Israel, as does conscientious objection - refusal to serve for political, ideological or moral reasons.
Overwhelmingly, the majority of youngsters, from all classes and societal segments, respond positively to the call to service - and usually enthusiastically so. That is a truly remarkable phenomenon.
REMEMBER that there are numerous reasons why one would have expected draft-dodging in contemporary Israel to be far in excess of five percent.
Leave aside the pervasiveness in much of today's Israeli society of post-modernism (sometimes post-Zionism), an atmosphere that places the individual's interest before those of the community. Instead, focus on the reasons for potential draft-dodging attributable to the IDF: the knowledge that for the past two decades it has assigned much of its complement to constabulary duties in the territories, which some recruits consider to be at best distasteful and at worst morally problematic; that as recently as 2005 the IDF ordered vast numbers of conscripts, who when drafted were told that they were joining "a people's army," to evict Jewish citizens from their legal homes in the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria; and that during the past year hardly a day has passed without another revelation of the almost unbelievable buffoonery and incompetence displayed by IDF commanders during last summer's Second Lebanon War.
Given that background, the wonder is not that five percent of potential recruits seek to avoid the draft (a figure that was considered reasonable in the western Allied countries during World War II and that the US would have been delighted to match during the Vietnam War), but why that number is so small.
WHY THEN all the fuss? Because the IDF has an institutional interest in creating an impression of crisis. This is an old IDF tactic. As the Brodet Commission recently showed, it has been used repeatedly to legitimize IDF demands for unnecessarily inflated additions to the defense budget.
Precisely the same situation now seems to apply in the area of human resources. Instead of taking the steps required to re-fashion its force structure and bring it into line with the needs of an increasingly complex battlefield (for instance, by seriously examining the option of a shift to a more professional force), the IDF prefers to cry wolf and give society a bad conscience by stressing the need to correct the supposed failing of Israeli youth.
However, few such efforts are required. The only thing wrong with the vast majority of today's Israeli youngsters is that they are naÃ¯ve enough to believe whatever persons in uniform tell them. Surely it is up to older heads to try and rectify that imbalance, and to persuade the IDF that its first priority is to put its own house in order.
The author is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at its Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.
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