The shrinking stigma

While the discussion rages over the role of haredim in the IDF, social and economic discrimination against secular Zionists who choose not to serve appears to be dwindling.

Soldiers (photo credit: IDF Spokesman's Unit)
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman's Unit)
There are currently two countervailing trends apparent in Israeli society. While the public debate over the enlistment of the ultra- Orthodox increases in intensity, assuming a c e n t r a l place in the country ’s p o l i t i c a l d i s c o u r s e and breaking up governing coalitions, a different trend has been observed – that of the breakdown in the importance of military service.
These two trends would seem, at first glance, to be mutually exclusive and contradictory, yet they are indicative of some sweeping changes that have developed in the social fabric of this country since the 1970s.
While the issue of the enlistment of yeshiva students has led to the spilling of much ink in the press, the complementary phenomenon of the diminishing importance of military service in the general public has largely gone under the radar. While there is great public outcry against yeshiva students who prefer the confines of the study hall to the army camp and the Talmud to the rifle, those members of mainstream Israeli society who do not serve in the IDF no longer face the social stigma that once proved the kiss of death for those labeled as “draft dodgers.”
As recently as the 1970s, military service was seen as the key to entrance into social, business and academic circles in this country; it was the condition sine qua non for acceptance in any field. In the days when Israel faced frequent conventional wars against multiple armies, rather than the unconventional arms and terrorism of today, the social status of the warrior was at its peak.
Furthermore, due to Israel’s quasisocialist economy and small private sector, laws prohibiting those who did not serve from working in public-sector jobs provided an overwhelming incentive to enlist.
On an ideological level, universal service as a key to social integration was an integral part of the Zionist ethos shared by Israelis of almost all political orientations.
However, over the past few decades, the stigma against avoidance of military service has weakened significantly.
This is best exemplified by the prominence of Daphni Leef, the driving force behind last summer’s social justice protests. When it was revealed in the popular press that Leef was exempted from IDF service, it certainly became more of an issue than it would in any other Western democracy, but her personal military status did not – as her opponents may have wished – delegitimize her in the eyes of her substantial following. This would not have been the story only a few short years ago.
Prof. Stuart Cohen of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Political Studies has been researching the changing relations between Israeli society and the IDF and has arrived at several conclusions regarding the reason for such a dramatic change.
“[Starting] about 15 years ago, before the year 2000, for several years now the stigma has definitely declined,” he says. “In some circles there is a slight stigma attached, but certainly not as much as would have been the case in the 1970s.”
Even by law, he adds, “the stigma has been lifted. There was once a law that you couldn’t be employed in public service unless you had done military service, you couldn’t have a driver’s license if you hadn’t done military service,” but that is not the case any more, he said.
However, changes to the law do not account for changes in attitude.
Cohen says Israelis’ ambivalence on the issue can be linked to “a general drift away from the emphasis on the values of militarism and a general drift away from collectivism.” Today there is “a great emphasis on personal freedom and individual rights rather than collectivities.”
There cannot be a stigma, he says, “despite whatever the army says about the ‘people’s army’ and drafting everybody,” when “anybody who has had any experience knows the army really doesn’t need everybody. The army wastes a lot of people’s time and is very glad to get rid of people very easily if they come with back complaints or some sort of problem which would prevent them from doing service.”
When Israelis see people in uniform “just learning to waste their time,” he says, they realize that universal conscription is “ridiculous.”
“Many of us have gone through military service and realized how much time we wasted there. You just have to walk around Azrieli [Mall across the street from the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv] to see how many young people in uniform are just young people in uniform are just wasting their time.” This, he believes, is one of the factors breaking down the old collectivist ethos that emphasized the importance of the army.
Moreover, he says, none of the repercussions that would have negatively affected those who did not serve in the early years of the state are operative today.
Even if you do not serve, he says, “you can go to university, get a degree and integrate into life. Nobody checks [your status]. Somebody who doesn’t do [army] service can go through life and be an upstanding citizen and he can [even run] for Knesset and be a public figure – and I think that this is very healthy.”
Back in the heyday of the army’s popularity, however, there was a social stigma associated with not serving.
“I can’t say that you wouldn’t get a job,” Cohen explains, but “your military background was a factor, not necessarily in the private sector, but certainly in the public sector, which of course was a larger sector anyway. It is only since the late 1970s that the private sector in Israel has really taken off.”
When the government controlled jobs and benefits, there really was no choice but to serve.
“I think that the conclusion of all this is that the whole idea of a people’s army, universal conscription, is basically fading away on its momentum without anybody legislating,” he concludes.
The fact that there have been calls by mainstream politicians to modify the long-standing notion of the IDF as a people’s army shows that ideas once considered hegemonic no longer enjoy universal support.
Prof. Yagil Levy of the Open University agrees. According to Levy, in recent years the conscription model has been caught in what he terms “a crisis of legitimacy.”
“Such a crisis develops when forming a significant gap between the sources of legitimacy of the social structure and practice. In this case the gap is between the ethos of equality and the totality of the recruitment model.”
In simpler terms, the Zionist value of universal service has come into conflict with increasing exemption rates – about 25 percent of men and 45% of women, Levy says, thus undermining the moral standing of this principle. Reasons include claims of physical health problems, mental issues, religious reasons, and ethnic identity reasons in the case of Arabs.
“The result is a model of selective conscription” without basis in legislation, Levy says.
Moreover, there is a “motivation crisis” among the middle class that is caused in part by a “decreased existential threat.” This has led to a “weakening of the willingness to sacrifice” among average secular Israelis.
Beyond that, Levy says, is “the emergence of Israeli society as a market which promotes values that might contrast with military culture, including competitiveness, individualism, materialism, individual freedom, globalization and more.”
Thirdly, he says, “expansion of access to various rights regardless of military service” has led to benefits once reserved for veterans becoming available to Israeli Arabs and haredim.
“The term ‘veteran’ has almost completely lost its meaning to grant preferences in housing, employment, social security payments and more,” Levy says.
“Moreover, in markets, the criterion of social class is certainly not personal contribution to the state but personal success, which would weaken the significance of the military contribution.”
What is interesting about this is the expansion of the roles in military service of previously marginalized groups, he says.
According to Levy, the diminishing importance of military service among mainstream, Ashkenazi, secular Zionists has led to “an increase [in the military prominence of] groups that were previously on the margins: national-religious; immigrants; Sephardim from the periphery; and gradually, Druse women.
The emergence of a selective recruitment model, Levy says, coupled with exemptions for large segments of the population, gives young people the impression that universal service is not as critical as it once was.
REFERRING TO Leef and the social protest movement, Levy agrees with Cohen that social mobility and political success are no longer limited to veterans. In recent years, he believes, one’s “military record ceased to be an important test of political mobility.”
In fact, he says, in today’s competitive private sector, combat soldiers who serve regularly in reserves are actually at a disadvantage due to their inability to work on a dependable basis.
“Combat soldiers serving in the reserves complain about discrimination in the workplace,” he notes.
Sergeiy Sandler sees a significant change in Israeli society since the time that he opted out of army service.
“It is clear there has been a change in the way people who have not served in the army can integrate into Israeli society, if we take a relatively long perspective,” he says.
Sandler, the son of Russian immigrants, spent time in jail following his 1994 refusal to serve in the IDF. He was, he says, among the founders of an association of conscientious objectors and was involved in the establishment of a counseling network affiliated with the NGO New Profile, which assists those who wish to avoid IDF service. According to information that he has posted online, “New Profile’s counseling network... today directly assists some 5%-10% of all draft avoiders in Israel, on whatever grounds, and practically all declared COs [conscientious objectors].”
As a former refuser, Sandler says that not serving still “stands as [an economic] barrier to some extent,” but that it is “very difficult to gauge exactly to what extent, because it is clear that there is still some level of discrimination against people who haven’t served in the military... There is not, in most cases, something that is explicitly presented as discrimination on these grounds. It is not easy to separate factors. There is a lot of discrimination in Israeli society against groups who do not serve in the military, if you look at Palestinian-Israelis, at the ultra- Orthodox Jews.
“In the case of people who have not served in the military and are not part of such groups it is difficult to say,” Sandler continues. “I think that the general impression that we are getting is it is still, especially for young people in their early 20s, difficult. It can still be an issue when going for a job.
If you haven’t served in the army, you will find a job in the end if you really work for it; it might be a bit more difficult, however.”
“Some parts of the job market are naturally closed to people who haven’t served for some reasonable reasons, such as security jobs,” he adds.
Haggai Matar, a journalist and columnist for the web-based +972 Magazine, is also affiliated with New Profile. In 2002 Matar joined a group of high school graduates known as the Shministim (12th-graders) who sent then-prime minister Ariel Sharon a letter indicating their refusal to serve in the army on ideological grounds. Matar served two years in prison for his refusal to enlist.
“I would say that my experience was different from average,” Matar says.
“My refusal was very outspoken and I went to prison for two years. There was a trial that was covered by all the media – my face and the faces of those who were with me became known. People still stop me in the street.”
While his case is not typical of those who receive exemptions in terms of social stigma, there is still a stigma against refusing to serve, Matar says.
But he says there has been much less discrimination against him than there would have been in previous decades.
“When I got out of prison I went to work at a bookshop, and the first thing they said was, ‘You spent two years in prison, we already know that about you. What else can you tell us about yourself?’ By inviting me to the interview they kind of approved of this ahead of time.”
“On the whole I think it is definitely much less of an issue than it used to be be,” Matar adds. “It used to be total shock and awe, ‘how could this be’ if someone didn’t serve. Now it is nothing like that. But I don’t think any [young people] would say I would be banned from society.”
However, he says that in certain circles – such as the kibbutz movement as well as the national-religious and settler communities – there is still a great deal of social pressure to serve.
Asked why he considers military service to have lost something of its onetime glamour, Matar says that while it is possible to discuss the “effects of the occupation” and the lessened perception of “existential danger,” the main factor is the economy.
“I’ve seen this with people. I’ve sat in prison and heard stories, and I’ve heard these stories at the social protests – of how the new economy ended that social obligation of people to go to the army.” Matar believes that the implied social contract in which people received jobs and benefits from the country’s socialist leadership in exchange for service broke down with the emergence of capitalism.
“This happened with privatization and the opening up [of Israel] to the world culturally and academically.
During the 1990s young people would say they didn’t need the army anymore to have a future,” he recalls.
While it seems certain that the social status of the army has declined, it is still an important part of Israeli culture, with soldiers being featured in advertisements and in popular culture to a degree unmatched by any other Western nation. And while it has become more acceptable for individuals to seek alternatives to military service, it is still not mainstream, and resentment against social groupings that avoid involvement in the military remains strong. It seems that what is acceptable for individuals is not acceptable for entire sectors in the eyes of the average Israeli.
Despite all of this talk of avoidance and its increasing acceptance, it is interesting to note, says Cohen, that only some 2-3% of Israelis actively dodge the draft. While large numbers receive exemptions, active avoidance of service for ideological reasons is not common at all.
At the end of the day, with all the talk of haredi enlistment, the issue of the role of the IDF in Israeli society will most likely take center stage in the national discourse during the coming years.