Analysis: What's bugging Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern?

When the numbers are examined objectively, they don't seem so alarming.

elazar stern noble 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimkski)
elazar stern noble 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimkski)
The head of the IDF's Human Resources Branch has been releasing what he calls "worrying" figures on the number of 18-years-olds getting out of the draft. On Monday, he took the unorthodox step for an officer in uniform of criticizing the government and Knesset for not doing enough to make sure that more youngsters enlist. When the numbers are examined objectively, they don't seem so alarming. Twenty-five percent of young men don't enlist. Out of those, 11 percent are Haredim who refuse to serve, a social and religious problem that no government has managed to solve. Nothing new there and don't hold your breath for any changes soon. Three percent live abroad and another 4 percent are unfit for service due to criminal records and other reasons. Seven percent are ruled unfit for medical and mental problems. There is a slight raise in all these groups, but on the other hand, three-quarters of young men serve, and more than two-thirds of those who are medically fit volunteer for combat service (these figures apply to the Jewish and Druse sectors. The day Israeli Arabs begin serving in the IDF, we won't need an army anymore). These are still impressive figures for a democratic country with a Western standard of living. But it's not these figures that are raising the, for now, muted alarm bells. Stern and other senior officers realize the difficulty of maintaining high enlistment levels in a society where certain groups are now leading more isolated lives, with less regard for what were once sacrosanct national ideals, and other groups are rapidly feeling estranged from mainstream Israel. The worry is that like the ultra-Orthodox today, tomorrow there could be another significant community that stays out of the IDF experience. It might be the children of the moneyed class or the intelligentsia who just can't see the point, and it could be the young settlers who refuse to take part in an army that dismantles settlements. Stern singled out "celebrity draft dodgers" for a special helping of scorn, but not because there are a large number of them or that the IDF really misses their contribution to its fighting force. The fear is of their example, that avoiding recruitment could one day be a fashionable choice, much more that donning the Golani brown beret. Stern was hinting at that last year when he said after the war that these days, he rarely ever visits families of fallen soldiers in Tel Aviv. In other words, serving in the combat units just isn't very popular with the graduates of the big city's high schools. Tel Aviv is a useful bogey-word when dealing with ideological loss and post Zionism. Tens of thousands of Israeli in their 20s and early 30s migrate there from the rest of the country, creating a hedonistic and valueless atmosphere where money and having a good time reign supreme. But what influence does this have on the adolescents about to enlist? How long will they be willing to postpone joining this culture and "getting ahead" in life for three difficult and dangerous years? Or will they prefer following the example of their teen-idols? None of these worries are new. The IDF likes to style itself as a "people's army," but in truth it never really was. In the nation's first three decades, the officers corps and the elite paratroopers units were filled mainly with the sons of the predominantly secular, Ashkenazi kibbutzim, moshavim and urban elites, while the slum-dwellers, the religious boys and those who grew up in development towns usually filled the ranks of the auxiliary units and less glamorous combat units. There was never a designated officers class, and everyone was equal in basic training, but the majority of the fallen came from relatively small groups. But the communities now making out of proportion contributions to the army's elite, and to the rows in the military cemeteries have changed. The worries that every new generation is too spoiled, too complacent and not motivated enough to charge into the fire of battle have been around almost from the moment that the fighters of the Independence War laid down their weapons. In the Fifties it was "the salon dancers," in the Sixties they were called "the espresso generation." Later on it was "the discotheque culture," and now Stern is talking about "the celebrities." Despite the growing dissonance between civil society and the quality of life, and the hardships of army life, every war, including last summer's proved that there is no shortage of bravery and perseverance. These are social trends, and Stern is right in being concerned. But he should realize that the IDF's ability to influence such trends is very limited, and that this is as it should be in a democracy. The levels of motivation and volunteerism among teenagers are still high, and there is no real need for alarm. Perhaps instead of complaining about society, politicians and the celebrity culture, the generals would do better to concentrate on what is happening within the army so they can project a more professional and attractive image toward these youngsters and offer them a more meaningful and rewarding service.