A Guy at a Bus Stop

An article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. I spotted Guy at the shabby bus stop on the south-bound side of the Geha Highway, at the foot of the narrow bridge that leads to the Ramat Gan campus of Bar-Ilan University, near the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Most highway bus stops in Israel have been cleaned up, but 30 years ago, they all looked like this - pockmarked, cracked, crumbling, covered with graffiti and posters. Trash litters the ground, and behind us, down in a gully, stands a small trailer-cum-snack bar, whose stick-skinny and unshaven proprietor sprawls on one of several plastic chairs scattered around his enterprise, which may or may not be legal, but looks like it isn't. The narrow sidewalk leaves little room for people to stand, and the space has been further cramped by five different large mailbox-type metal boxes in which waiting bus travelers are encouraged to deposit donations of food and cash for different haredi (ultra-Orthodox) grocery-distribution charities. There are about 30 of us, waiting for buses to Tel Aviv, Rishon Lezion and Jerusalem this Wednesday evening. Two soldiers in uniform, a young haredi woman in long sleeves and a long skirt silently reciting psalms, several black-coated men with beards and students. Bar Ilan was founded by the modern-Orthodox movement, but most of its students are not religious. So some of the women are in tank tops, and the men are with and without skull caps. Guy is without. He's got a pistol in a holster stuck in the back of his jeans and he's wearing a black end-of-unit-training T-shirt with the standard funny drawing that only the guys in the unit could possibly understand. He's a bit overweight and has a steely look in his eyes. During the course of the day I'd seen him on the far end of the lecture hall during a conference on "The Decline of Citizen Armies in Democratic States," sponsored by Bar-Ilan's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA). I introduce myself. His name is Guy. He's studying political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and he attended the conference both for school and because he's got a personal stake in the subject. Guy is a reserve intelligence officer who did his regular service in one of the units that polices the West Bank. While he and his buddies were trained specifically for that task, he was also called up to serve in Lebanon in the war two summers ago, when there was a shortage of trained reservists. Even when there's not war, Guy and his reserve unit are mobilized between 60 and 80 days a year, more than two to three times the official legal limit, so the question of whether the Israel Defense Forces will be an army in which all citizens serve, its traditional format, or morphs into an army manned by salaried volunteers, directly affects his life, work, and studies. Speakers at the conference cited figures - well-known ones - showing that universal military service, while still on the law books, is to a great extent a myth. BESA scholar Stuart Cohen noted that a full quarter of draft-age Israeli Jewish men, and 40-45 percent of Jewish women, receive exemptions of one form or another - for religious reasons (like almost all ultra-Orthodox men), medical problems, or under the general rubric of "incompatibility," which includes increasing numbers of young people who simply do not want to serve. Another 17 percent of each cohort of men are discharged after service of 12-18 months out of the officially mandated three years of service, mostly for incompatibility. Add to that the fact that most Israeli citizens who are not Jewish are automatically exempt - the exceptions being the Druse and Circassians - and what you have is not an army of citizens but an army of little more than half the citizens. Although some of those exempted, in particular religious Zionist women, volunteer for civilian national service; yeshiva students and the "incompatibles" are accused of draft dodging. The scholars who spoke at the conference reacted in two ways: some - Emanuel Sakal, a BESA senior research associate and a major general in the reserves, was the most vociferous - decried the trend and called for a return to a republican society of virtue in which citizens are expected to serve their country and punished if they do not. Others, Cohen among them, suggested that, given the fact that the army neither needs the dropouts nor cares to spend time, money, and effort to compel them to serve, it might be worth considering whether Israel ought to have a draft at all. Perhaps an all-volunteer force on the model of the U.S. military, and increasingly of European democracies, would be better both for the IDF and Israeli society. "Sakal is a relic," I said to Guy. "We can't turn the clock back. Our conscription policy has to be appropriate for Israeli society today, not what it was in the 1960s." "We can and should turn the clock back," replied Guy, who in addition to his studies and his reserve duty, also holds down a job as a security guard. The 400 bus pulled up. The clutch of people who queued up by the front door seemed to me to prove my point. There were young ultra-Orthodox men in black suits and fedoras, a group of non-servers much larger and more politically powerful than they had been 60 years ago when David Ben-Gurion agreed that a select few yeshiva students should be exempted from the draft, a handful that has grown to massive proportions. There was the long-haired student with the I-pod and the tattoo on his shoulder - no way of knowing if he'd been in the army, but if he hadn't, he'd have no problem finding a job and would hardly be a pariah among his contemporaries. I know a lot of men, my age and younger, who didn't serve or served little. Many of them have contributed to society in other ways (ways that no one would have expected of them when they were callow and disobedient youths); others are good husbands and fathers, no small accomplishment in and of itself. Guy found a seat in the middle of the bus, on the aisle, and I settled into the empty seat next behind him. "If these guys served," I said, indicating the yeshiva students around us, "would you do any less reserve duty?" He agreed that he wouldn't. "I'm in a highly-trained, dedicated unit. Even if they were in the army, these guys wouldn't be right for units like mine. But society would be sending a message about the importance of service. Even in my type of service, some guys decide that their three years of regular service was enough. They're good soldiers, but reserve duty is not a priority for them. They wriggle out. Then there's more of a burden on the rest of us." "When I was company clerk of my reserve unit, half my job was being a social worker," I recalled. "I had to deal with guys who lost their motivation. A man would show up for a stint of duty and say he wanted out. If the commander and I knew him as a valuable soldier, we'd do our best to accommodate him. Sometimes it was a passing thing. But when the guy was like that two or three times in a row, in an extreme way, we'd usually let him go. We didn't have the time to deal with it. And a recalcitrant reservist in the ranks was bad for the rest of the unit. It hurt morale." "That's true," Guy said. "But you've got to force them to serve in order to make the message clear. That it's everyone's duty." I reminded Guy that another speaker at the conference, Gabi Ben-Dor of the University of Haifa, had said: "The military understands that there's no point in fighting social trends. The army has more manpower than it needs, and it doesn't want non-military missions." In other words, the army doesn't want the job of setting the moral tone for Israeli society. "It doesn't, and it's too bad," Guy said. His cell phone rings and he gets into a long conversation with a friend. It's something about work. I settle back into my seat and reflect that Israeli society, whatever its mores, couldn't survive if there weren't a lot of young men like Guy, willing and able to juggle job, studies, and weeks and weeks of annual reserve duty. Like the bus stop on the Geha Highway, Guy is a holdover from an earlier age. The bus stop can be left to crumble and the buses will still come. If we neglect Guy and others like him, they won't show up when we need them. • Haim Watzman is author of 'Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel' and 'A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley.' He blogs at http://southjerusalem.com click here. An article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.