Analysis: Is the state shooting itself in the foot?

A cut in pre-IDF academies' budgets gives the impression that one gov't hand is oblivious to the other.

idf soldiers w guns 88 (photo credit: )
idf soldiers w guns 88
(photo credit: )
The realization that Israel is in dire need of large numbers of combat troops to fight Islamic guerrillas was one of the IDF's central lessons from both the Second Lebanon War and Hamas's takeover of Gaza. That's why Defense Minister Ehud Barak - who once, as chief of staff in the 1990's, envisioned a slimmed-down, hi-tech combat force that could accommodate the me-generation - was so irked by this year's disappointingly low conscription rates. This summer it became known that a record 25 percent of Jewish Israeli men who turned 18 over the last year did not embark on a three-year stint of military service, while 43% of women avoided their two years of service. Since the 1970's, the percentage of non-conscripted Israeli Jews - Israeli Arabs are automatically exempt - doubled, as Zionist collectivism has given way to post-Zionist individualism. Aside from the shift in philosophy, the change in conscription rates is related to a change in the public's perception of the army's role. The War of Independence, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War were fights for existence, but the Lebanon War and the administration of Judea, Samaria and Gaza also had the added dimension - riddled with moral dilemmas - of occupation. This fundamental change in the type of wars we fight has taken its toll on military morale. One idea raised to fight this negative trend was the institution of pre-military academies, specifically for secular Israelis. The idea to create secular pre-military academies got a push in the mid-1990's with the scandal ensuing from a highly publicized visit by then-defense minister Yitzhak Mordechai. With news media closely watching, Mordechai was bombarded with questions by the newly enlisted artillery soldiers who wanted to know the best way of avoiding military service. The scene shocked the nation. But it told them something they already knew - Israeli youth was losing its will to fight. In September 1997, in an attempt to fight this troubling trend, the first secular pre-military academy was created - almost a decade after Rabbi Eli Sadan established the first religious pre-military academy in the Samaria settlement of Eli. Called Nachshon Pre-military Academy for Social Leadership, the institution hoped to educate a new generation of Israelis to be more patriotic and more idealistic. Central to the curriculum is a big dose of Jewish studies or "Yiddishkeit" as Ze'evik Nativ, Nachshon's secular founder prefers to call them. "The first Zionists went too far with their radical rejection of the Galut [Jewish diaspora]," says Nativ. "They themselves enjoyed the benefits of both worlds - a strong Jewish identity coupled with a new social activism. But their children and their children's children were deprived of Jewish culture. They lost their ties to the land. "Now, after a few generations, we need to go back to our roots. We need to see Zionism within the framework of the richness of our culture. Doing so ties us closer to our homeland and makes us better soldiers by teaching us the importance of protecting our country." Today there are 16 religious pre-military academies and 15 secular or mixed (religious and secular) ones. In addition to deepening soldiers' Jewish identity, the secular pre-military academies also focus on teaching leadership qualities, Zionism, and imparting a more profound understanding of Israeli society and geography. No one can deny the success of the pre-military academies. According to data supplied by the Education Ministry, of approximately 1,600 students, both religious and secular, enrolled in the academies every year, some 50% enlist in combat units compared to a national average of 30%. Graduates are twice as likely to become officers. But now the academies are suffering from severe budget cuts. According to Rabbi Moshe Hagar, Chairman of the Association of Pre-military Academies, unless the cuts are reversed in the coming months, academies will be forced to close down. With the backdrop of the IDF's shame campaign aimed at musicians, artists and other teen idols who skirted or were exempted from full military service, the cut in pre-military academies' budgets gives the impression that one government hand is oblivious to what the other hand is doing. The same state that canceled a performance by singer Ivri Lider at a gala concert for 10,000 soldiers this week, that discontinued a weekly Army Radio show hosted by singer Aviv Geffen (who apparently was exempted from military due to scoliosis), is now cutting funds to one of its most important morale-building institutions.